Teen Receives Award for Courageous Rescue

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Texas teenager Virgil Smith received the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s Young Hero Award in March. In August 2017, Smith saved 17 people in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas.

Thirteen-year-old Virgil Smith received a Citizen Honors Young Hero Award in March for his heroic actions in saving people during Hurricane Harvey. Harvey was a dangerous storm which struck the coast of Texas last August. However, while rain and thunder raged outside his family’s apartment, Smith had other matters on his mind. The teenager was competing against his friend Keshaun in an online video game.

Hurricane Harvey

The winds of Hurricane Harvey first roared across the city of Houston, Texas, earlier in the day on August 26, 2017. Once the storm was on shore, the winds quickly weakened in intensity. Although it was downgraded to a tropical storm, Harvey still dumped untold gallons of rain on Smith’s hometown of Dickinson, Texas, located about 30 miles southeast of downtown Houston.

“I checked out my window first and I was like, ‘Nah, it ain’t nothing,’” Smith remembered. “It was raining but didn’t look like nothing that would flood. Then, in about an hour, the whole apartment just got flooded super quick.”

Water Everywhere

Trouble came when Smith’s mother opened the door to their first-floor apartment. When Smith’s mother Lisa Wallace opened it, water suddenly rushed in.

“I kept hearing car alarms going off,” Wallace remembers. “I opened up the front door and about three feet of water entered our home. I’d never seen anything like what I saw that night. It was scary and I thought the world was ending.”

As the waters rose inside their apartment, Smith, his mother Lisa, and his older sister Diamond knew they had to get out, and quickly. They grabbed as many things as they could carry. With the help of two neighbors, Lisa Wallace was able to climb a set of stairs to a neighbor’s apartment on the second floor. Smith and his sister swam to the stairs by themselves.

Now out of the flood waters, Smith felt relief as he reached safety at the top step of the stairs. The relief did not last long. His cellphone rang. It was his friend Keshaun. He reported that he and family members were trapped in their apartment by the flood waters. Keshaun’s apartment was fifty yards away across a courtyard. They needed help—soon!

Smith knew that he had to save his friend. Even though he has a respiratory condition called asthma that can sometimes make it difficult to breathe, he managed to run back down the stairs and back to his apartment. “I wasn’t scared at all,” Smith described. “I knew I had to go and help them. I didn’t want them to drown. My adrenaline just kicked in, and I did what I had to do.”

By now, the water in Smith’s apartment had risen even higher, reaching his head. Thinking quickly, he went to a closet in which his family stored an air mattress for when guests visited. Mattress in tow, Smith swam through the dark waters towards his friend’s apartment.

“The water started getting higher,” recounted Smith’s friend Keshaun. “So we went outside to see if we could see something and we saw [Virgil] swimming around.”

Smith managed to tow the air mattress through the flood waters to the back window of Keshaun’s apartment. Then, one at a time, Smith lifted Keshaun’s family members onto the air mattress. All the while, stinging fire ants, trying to save themselves from the rising waters, crawled over Smith’s skin. “I thank God that no snakes or no alligators bit us,” Smith said.

Two neighbors helped the teenager steer the air mattress back across the courtyard to the safety of the second-floor apartment where Smith’s mother and sister were waiting. In all, Smith pulled Keshaun, his two sisters, two brothers, mother, and stepfather to safety.


With Keshaun’s family safe, Smith had more business to attend to. He saw a beam of light flash across the street, about 70 yards away. Then he heard a scream for help. An older woman and her grandson were stuck in their apartment with flood waters rising. Smith pulled the air mattress to the apartment.

When he reached the apartment, Smith smashed in a window in order to rescue the woman and her grandson. However, Smith soon discovered even more trouble. The woman was frozen in fear as she watched her grandson have a seizure. When people have a seizure, they have an electrical disturbance in their brain that can change their movements, behavior, or emotions. Smith responded by calming her grandson. He then lifted them and their pet dog onto the air mattress. He was able to pull them to the second-floor apartment where his and Keshaun’s families waited in safety. “About 10 minutes after that,” Smith remembered, “my air mattress burst!”

After the Storm

After a while, the floodwaters became full of debris, making them too dangerous to swim in. However, by then Virgil Smith had saved a total of 17 people.

Smith’s mother admitted that she was a bit worried as she watched her son ferry their neighbors to safety. “It amazed me, but I know he can swim,” Lisa Wallace said. “He’s been swimming since he was seven, so I knew that wasn’t a problem. I had a little fear, but once we got to those stairs, that was it. I gave it to God and left it there.”

Eventually, a total of 30 people gathered in the second-floor apartment awaiting help. The group only had 6 bottles of water to drink, which they shared among themselves with a single cup. Luckily, a local couple with a boat was able to rescue everyone. “It was quite an adventure when they rescued us, no more than 6 at a time, in the boat,” Lisa Wallace said. “We were hitting cars and all sorts of items because we couldn’t see where we were because it was so dark.”

Although its winds decreased once it landed on the Texas Gulf Coast, Hurricane Harvey still dumped millions of gallons of water throughout the area. Most of the storm’s damage was because of floods, not powerful winds.

A Hero Honored

Because of the heroic rescue he performed, Smith received a Citizen Honors Young Hero Award from the Medal of Honor Foundation, which is part of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. The society has presented these awards annually since 2008. Smith received his award at a ceremony in Arlington, Virginia, on March 23. A total of 30 of the 71 living Medal of Honor recipients were in attendance.

“I met him after the storm and was impressed by his humble nature after seeing a news story about his heroics,” said Eugene Lewis, an employee of Texas’s Communities in Schools-Galveston County, who nominated Smith for special recognition at the program’s annual From Hardship to Hope banquet. “I consider his actions in that situation nothing less than heroic. More so because he doesn’t consider himself a hero or his actions courageous. He saw friends and neighbors in need of help and did his best to help.”

“Today, we pause to recognize National Medal of Honor Day and remember those who have sacrificed and honorably fought to defend our freedom,” said Bob Patterson, Medal of Honor Recipient and vice president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. “We have heroes all around us, everyday people who perform extraordinary acts of heroism and service that help strengthen our communities and Nation.”

Virgil Smith’s mother is proud. “Words can’t express how proud I am of what he did on that night. He truly is a hero and deserves all of this recognition, even though he isn’t too fond of it.” “I still don’t even really know what drove me to do what I did that night,” Virgil Smith said. “All of this attention I’ve gotten has made me feel as though I’m ‘special.’ It really makes me feel good and proud about myself. It’s pretty cool to have my peers and community recognize me, and I wouldn’t change anything from that night. I’d do it again if I had to.”

Additional Resources

Read more about Virgil Smith’s heroic rescues at the San Antonio Express-News and the Houston Chronicle.

Learn more about the Citizen Honor Award at the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.

Discover more about water rescue techniques at the American Red Cross and the United States Navy.

Images and Sources

Virgil Smith award photo: Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes
Virgil Smith award photo license: Creative Commons 2.0

Hurricane Harvey photo: Jill Carlson
Hurricane Harvey photo license: Creative Commons 2.0