SALT LAKE CITY — Mark Pierce and his wife were spending a snowy February night relaxing at their cabin east of Heber City when the explosion happened.
“Our whole house shook,” said Pierce, who looked up to see flames shooting out of his neighbor Lori Walker’s devastated cabin.
Sinking up to his waist in snow, Pierce ran outside to see two girls frantically shouting that their mother, Walker, was still trapped inside. Pierce joined his neighbors Eric Staten and Nate Hammond and climbed into the house through a broken window.
They found Walker unconscious and trapped under debris, and pulled her to safety as the burning house collapsed around them.
Now, a year after the fire, Pierce, Staten and Hammond’s heroism was honored at an annual awards ceremony hosted by the Utah chapter of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge.
“It’s not something sad or traumatic to look back on, it’s something to celebrate,” said Walker. “I just I can’t believe I’m still here.”
The national nonprofit honored more than a dozen Utahns on Wednesday who displayed heroism and dedicated service to their fellow citizens over the past year.
“It was really emotional,” said Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, who helped present the awards. “To be able to actually shake their hands, give them a hug and thank them on behalf of everyone in Utah, it really choked me up.”
The awards ceremony kicked off by awarding Elder D. Todd Christofferson, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with the George Washington Honor Medal for his work promoting religious freedom.
“As a gifted teacher, he focuses on the critical role religion plays in societies worldwide,” Lloyd Newell, a former board member of the Freedoms Foundation’s Utah chapter, said of Elder Christofferson.
“He encourages people everywhere to get involved, to speak up and take a stand for religious freedom,” Newell said, speaking to a packed room. “Though passionate about religion, Christofferson is quick to point out the value of people who are not religious.”
The Freedoms Foundation also honored Boyd Matheson, Deseret News opinion editor, for “exemplifying the values and principles upon which the United States was created,” said Newell. “As a gifted writer and speaker Boyd creates a space for a different kind of conversation, and stimulates critical thinking.”
In addition to Christofferson and Matheson, the George Washington Honor Medal was also awarded to three other recipients — Skyview High School for its student-led celebration of Veterans Day, Leslie Zimmerman for her efforts supporting Utah’s veterans, and East High School for its program serving the needs of homeless students and their families.
Newell and Reyes then presented the Local Hero Award to six Utahns whose bravery greatly impacted — and in some cases saved the lives of — people in their communities.
Among the recipients was Brandon Baker, a nonverbal disabled man who spends hours waving to people driving by his parents’ house in Payson. One of those waves saved the life of a young man contemplating suicide, who later told his mother “if Brandon can live with his challenges and still be happy, why can’t I?”
Newell also honored Utah Highway Patrol trooper Ruben Correa, whose lifesaving efforts were captured in a video that went viral last October. Correa pulled an unconscious man, who had driven onto train tracks in Centerville, out of his car just seconds before the FrontRunner train slammed into the vehicle.
“I honestly did not expect them to recognize me like that,” Correa said shortly after receiving his award. “I’m just blessed to have the opportunity to come here and spend time with all these other heroes.”
Speaking to the Deseret News after the ceremony, Reyes said the honorees are emblematic of what he called Utah’s “spirit of volunteerism.”
“We have our challenges,” Reyes said. “But by and large, the people of Utah will be there for each other in times of need, especially in a crisis.”