Late in the morning on June 15, 1966, Donald Noel Harwood made the spur-of-the-moment decision that cost him his life as he struggled to save another’s.
After his supervisor at a Pine Bend, Minn., ammonia plant lost consciousness 16 feet underground in a nitrogen-filled concrete manhole, Harwood, 38, dashed to the opening. Winded, and without a gas mask or safety harness, Harwood climbed inside. Although a co-worker called out for him not to go down, Harwood descended the steel-rung steps.
Within a minute, Harwood had reached Ernest T. Hillborn at the bottom but then collapsed. An emergency crew later recovered the men, who both succumbed to a lack of oxygen inside the shaft.
Harwood’s attempted rescue impressed the company’s general manager and president. Two months later, D. C. Gattiker wrote to the Hero Fund to inquire about a posthumous medal for bravery, “which might in the years to come give some comfort and pride” to the family of the late assistant operating superintendent. Harwood’s death left his 35-year-old wife a widow raising five children ranging from 2 years old to 15.
“Here is an instance of a man, knowing the danger involved, who went unselfishly to the rescue of his supervisor and friend, and thereby lost his life,” Gattiker wrote. With the company’s cooperation in documenting the accident, the Commission in December 1966 identified the nine-year plant employee as a hero.
Harwood’s widow, Rose Mary Harwood Plath, 85, recalled recently that the circumstances of his death fit with his character as a good person. Plath, who waited until 1991 to remarry, said she felt that Harwood remained in the shadows to help her with their children. The Hero Fund provided a measure of support in the form of a monthly grant, which extended until the time of Plath’s remarriage.
“It was kind of like he was always with me while I was raising the kids,” said Plath, who recently returned to live in Hastings, Minn., where the Harwood family had lived.
A daughter, MaryDon Beeson, described Harwood as “a classic engineer” and hands-on father. Despite working long hours, Harwood carved out time to build things as varied as a pontoon boat, lawn mowers, swing sets, go-karts, and a car-top carrier that doubled as a dark room.
Beeson said the family appreciated the nostalgia generated last year for Harwood’s heroism when the Hastings Star Gazette published a story following the installation of a Hero Fund grave marker.
“Everyone that was 55 years or older just remembers the story like it had happened yesterday, so that was interesting to see,” said Beeson, who lives about 30 miles away in St. Paul, Minn. “It really did impact that small town.” —Chris Foreman, Case Investigator
15:13 calls to mind those in the Hero Fund’s 112-year history whose lives were sacrificed in the performance of their heroic acts. The name identifies the chapter and verse of the Gospel of John that appears on every medal: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Of the 9,845 medal awardees to date, 2,015, or 20.5% of the total, were recognized posthumously. They are not forgotten.
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