He was only 8 years old. His name was Tyler. He was from a small town in New York, and he is a hero by anyone’s standards. Fearless. I can’t get him out of my mind — I see his picture in the news clipping on my desk. I have a grandson his age, and I’m unable to dismiss his tragic story. You may have read about him a few weeks ago, although he did not get the press attention that Justin Bieber recently got — too bad, this young guy deserved national attention and a medal of honor.
He begged his mom to let him spend the night at his best friend’s house, who, by the way, just happened to be his grandpa. Their home caught fire, and he died, along with his best friend grandpa and his uncle. But there is more to this story. It’s one of those stories you read, and then you are so numbed by it, you have to re-read it only to confirm it’s real, albeit sobering, humbling and tear jerking. He saved six people, who authorities say all would have died had it not been for Tyler.
He was awakened early in the morning when a blanket that was covering his 4-year-old cousin caught fire. Tyler woke up six of his relatives, four adults and two children, and they all made it outside. But then, he did something that defies what we expect out of an 8-year-old boy. He ran back into the house to save his grandpa, who was disabled and unable to get out on his own. Firefighters found his little body with his grandpa — lying next to him, as if they were trying to get the window open to escape. He died next to his best friend. I doubt an 8-year-old boy fully understood the fact that one breath of the superheated, toxic atmosphere in a fire is deadly. Maybe he didn’t remember the admonishment from firefighters that you should never ever, go back into a house on fire once you have exited. Then again, maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. Tyler had a mission, a passion, a relentless desire to save his grandpa — no matter the cost. He knew his grandpa couldn’t get out on his own and Tyler couldn’t stand the thought of it — geez, I love that boy’s heart.
Local firefighters are not only calling him a brother, they wanted him to have a true firefighter’s funeral — which he got, and it was amazing, honoring and deserved. I find his courage profound actually. What causes an 8-year-old kid to run into a burning house? Oh, yeah, his best friend was in there. He just wanted to save his best buddy. I get it, but still, his actions shook me — maybe because he reminds me of my own grandson, or maybe because he has what it takes, or maybe because he did what most adults wouldn’t think of doing, or maybe just because he had a lion’s heart. His classmates made bracelets in his honor. His teacher cries when she sees his empty desk. His family will remember him as not only a son, but a son that gave his life for others. Now that is a legacy that will never be forgotten. I imagine that if he had gotten the chance to grow up he would have been a firefighter, or a soldier or a cop, or a paramedic, or any other profession that allowed him to do what made his heart come alive — helping others. And, of course, he and his grandpa would have fished and camped and laughed and dreamed and told corny stories, and walked hand in hand; after all, they were best friends. I imagine they are fishing and laughing right now, just not here.
I don’t tell this story to remind you of how tragic life can be; we need no reminders. My point is simply, live your life like Tyler. Not that you have to run into a burning building, but do whatever it is that makes you so passionate, so selfless, so courageous that you are willing to give it your all. When I think of emergency responders, I don’t think of us as heroes, nor do any of us for the most part. We are just passionate about what we do, so passionate, that we accept the fact we may die doing it. It’s no more passionate than a researcher trying to find a cure for cancer, or an author giving their whole life to writing a novel, or a grocery store clerk who wants to give the best service ever — the only difference is, they likely won’t have to make the ultimate sacrifice in fulfilling their objective. Still, what they do is no less important. What’s important is to be fearless in our approach, give it your all, roll the windows down and stick your head out, be a Braveheart, and do it like you’re running into a burning building to save your best friend ... like Tyler. Godspeed, my little hero friend.
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Mark Miller is Vail’s fire chief.