Master Sgt. Don White picked up Allison Norman and sat her on his lap. The 2-year-old smiled so wide, she almost dropped her pink pacifier. She giggled and clapped her hands.
And the crowd of more than 100 airmen at McChord Air Force Base followed the child’s lead, giving White a standing ovation moments after he received the Airmen’s Medal for saving the lives of Allison and her older sister, Emily, after a car accident two years ago.
The medal is awarded to service members who voluntarily risk their life under extreme conditions other than combat. White, a reservist with the 446th Airlift Wing and a civilian pipe fitter at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, was a technical sergeant when awarded the medal.
"What was supposed to be a fun event became very chaotic," said Maj. Gen. Harold Mitchell, who awarded the medal to White. "Who knows how any of us would have acted in that situation?"
White and his family were in a pasture near U.S. Highway 101 between Port Angeles and Sequim watching a farmer feed his sheep on July 4, 2006, when he heard what he called "this horrific crash – a loud, metal crashing noise." He ran toward the scene of a two-car crash. When he reached the road, a Ford Explorer caught fire with three people inside.
He said his desire to help was instinctual.
"I was afraid (the door) would be jammed shut," he said. "I didn’t want to risk that and be fiddling around with the door and see the two children burning instead and not be able to do anything about it. I picked up a rock and broke the window. That’s when I was able to pull the girls out."
The first girl he rescued was 3-year-old Emily. The two girls and their parents were driving back from Children’s Hospital in Seattle, where Emily was undergoing chemotherapy. Her parents had picked her up for the Fourth of July weekend; she was still wearing her hospital gown when White grabbed her from the back seat.
White handed Emily off to a bystander who had also come to help and went back to the car to save Allison, who was then 9 months old, from her car seat.
"Her hands were getting burned," she said. "The plastic lining of the roof was melting on her head. She was screaming and crying, and I leaned into the vehicle under the flames and pulled her out.
"I don’t know how I didn’t get burned. The Lord was definitely with me that day."
He put Allison in the arms of a bystander and attempted to save their father, 39-year-old Robert Norman. He couldn’t get close enough because of the heat, and Norman died before help arrived.
Emily died last year because of cancer.
The two deaths make the medal ceremony "bittersweet," White said. But seeing Allison running around the chairs on the stage before the event – something that elicited a smile from the two-star general – eased that pain.
"It’s definitely a pleasure and a warm feeling that she’s able to run and be happy," White said, "even in the absence of her father and her older sister, who weren’t able to make it."
Members of the saved girls’ family were in attendance, something White called "an extreme honor." He received periodic e-mail from Bob Norman, Allison’s grandfather, with photos of the girl. Both White and Allison’s mother, Ericka Larson, said they hope to remain in touch.
White appeared stoic during the ceremony and later admitted he doesn’t like the attention that came with receiving the medal.
"I experienced a lot of fear from what took place," he said. "I play through my head the images I saw that day. I experienced many sleepless nights after the accident. My children (had) nightmares.
"We’re often perceived as heroes, but people don’t realize the cost. There’s a very deep price to pay for doing what you do in a situation like that. I wouldn’t wish that experience on anybody."
But, White said, "I’d do it all over again."