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‘The highlight of my life:’ Utah man who rescued child from sinking truck honored with prestigious award

Sep 26, 2023, 8:55 PM

KAMAS — A Kamas man will receive a prestigious medal given to heroes from across North America.

Joe Donnell was named a recipient of the Carnegie medal for rescuing a nine-year-old boy who was trapped inside a sinking truck. It’s the highest honor for civilian heroism in North America. The medal and $7,500 grant are provided through the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission.

Donnell and his family’s lives changed forever when they went to Smith and Morehouse Reservoir on August 22, 2022.

“I saw a truck that was facing into the lake and it just started to drift slowly into the lake,” Donnell said.

He said the owners of the truck started yelling about a child, nine-year-old Paxton K. Knight, who was stuck inside. Two other children were able to escape the vehicle.

Donnell said he jumped out of his kayak, took off his life jacket, and began diving down to the rapidly sinking vehicle, trying to yank open doors and bust open windows.

“I went into the driver’s side compartment, and I reached up and I found Paxton floating against the roof, against the windshield,” he said.

Donnell brought the then nine-year-old to shore. He and his wife, Kathy and two other bystanders performed CPR on the child until first responders arrived.

“He was on life support and we just kept praying,” Donnell said.

The Summit County Sherriff’s office said Knight was underwater for more than 10 minutes. They said he was in extremely critical condition when he arrived at the hospital.

“We actually went to the hospital and we walked into the room and he was there just smiling, he remembered me,” Donnell said. “It was very heartwarming and very touching.”

Donnell visiting the Knight family in the hospital during Paxton’s recovery. (KSL TV)

Donnell, a former park ranger and first responder, brought Knight a gift.

“I had an Olympic ranger badge in a really nice display case so I gave him that, and that will be forever his,” he said.

Now, it’s Donnell’s turn to get his gift. He said close family friends nominated him for a prestigious award. His heroic act is now recognized on an international stage.

“It comes with a scholarship that we’re going to share with Paxton’s family,” Donnell said.

15 other people from Canada and the U.S. who risked their lives or died trying to someone else’s life were honored.

“To see my name in there was just incredible,” Donnell said. “Some of awards went to people that didn’t survive. They actually gave their life in the pursuit of trying to help someone.”

The Donnell family has stayed in touch with Knight and his family, who were all at the reservoir that day.

The Knight family and Donnell family keep in touch and spend holidays together. (KSL TV)

“We had Thanksgiving dinner with them, we exchanged Christmas presents,” Donnell said. “We’re still in touch and like to get together and play some baseball with him.”

Knight’s father, Ryan told KSL the now 10-year-old boy is “playing tackle football and going to school, and everything is going great as if nothing had even happened.”

Donnell said he’s grateful for this happy ending.

“The highlight of my life for sure,” he said.

Donnell said the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission plans to celebrate his award with an in-person ceremony in Utah in the coming months.

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‘The highlight of my life:’ Utah man who rescued child from sinking truck honored with prestigious award