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FAREWELL TO A HERO Family, friends and fellow firefighters gather to say good-bye to Donald Herbert following a decade filled with heartache and inspiration

To those who knew him least, Donald Herbert is regarded as a symbol of hope, a medical miracle who experienced a dramatic reawakening from a near-comatose state almost a decade after a burning roof caved in on him.

But to those who knew him best, he was much more than that.

Herbert was a husband and father of four sons to the family who loved him. He was a man of courage and inspiration to those who served with him in the Buffalo Fire Department.

And he also was one of the few people rewarded with the knowledge that, had he never lived, others likely would have died.

That was the man thousands remembered Saturday morning at his funeral in Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna.

"I want to thank God for those firefighters who saved Don's life 10 years ago," said his uncle, Simon Manka. "He was an inspiration on how to live life with compassion."

Thousands of firefighters, friends and other mourners packed the basilica Saturday. Though more than a third of the pews in the cavernous worship space were reserved for firefighters, many more stood in their crisp navy blue blazers and black-rimmed caps.

Roughly 250 Buffalo firefighters have been hired in the 10 years since Herbert left active duty, said Buffalo Fire Commissioner Michael Lombardo.

For them, every story was new. Stories about how Herbert saved lives and agonized over those that were lost. Stories about his life as a family man and the sons he took fishing. Stories about his generosity of spirit, his competitiveness and his inventiveness with games he concocted around the fire house.

Herbert, 43, died early Tuesday morning in Mercy Hospital, 2 1/2 days after he was admitted with pneumonia. For two days, his temperature soared at 105 degrees. He was covered with ice and loaded with antibiotics.

His family members knew he wouldn't make it much longer, but Herbert continued to fight death until his last son, a police officer in Atlanta, arrived at his bedside, Manka said.

Nothing about Herbert's time on earth, including the last 10 years, was a waste. Friends said he did more in his shortened life than many others who are rewarded with longevity.

"He would run into fires, many times, when others were running out," said Buffalo Fire Commissioner Lombardo, who remembers the day Herbert started with the fire department.

He had done it many times before, adhering to a code of courage that few others are asked to follow.

In May 1990, Herbert entered a burning Jefferson Avenue apartment and heard cries for help. He crawled under the smoke into the kitchen, where he found two adults and two small children, whom he snatched in his arms and carried to safety. He then re-entered the apartment to lead one adult and carry the other outside.

Herbert did what every firefighter is trained to do upon arriving at a house fire: he checked for people who might still be inside.

He was conducting a similar search in December 1995, when the hazards of his profession caught up with him and a roof collapsed. Herbert was trapped beneath roof debris, his brain starved of oxygen. Fellow firefighters stormed back into the burning building and pulled him out.

Their friend soon emerged from a coma but remained in a minimally conscious state for nearly 10 years, unable to carry on any meaningful conversation.

Then suddenly, last April 30, he looked out the window in the hallway of his Orchard Park nursing home and asked for his wife. That led to an approximately 16-hour lucid period when he remained awake and talked with his family and close friends.

His astounding improvement was attributed by many to a "drug cocktail" provided by his physician, Dr. Jamil Ahmed. But the miraculous recovery was brief.

Herbert suffered a setback last May when he hurt his head in a fall at the nursing home. He suffered bleeding in the brain and subsequently failed to show much improvement during rehabilitation.

Then pneumonia set in.

The Rev. Joseph Bayne, a chaplain with the Buffalo Fire Department, said Herbert was a fighter to the end, and his suffering was not in vain.

"When we want to quit and our tails our dragging, let's not quit," he said. "Donny was never a quitter."

He reminded those in attendance that as the Christian season of Lent approaches, many recall the suffering and the cross carried by Jesus Christ. His suffering and death led to Easter, the great feast of Jesus' resurrection.

So it is to be for Herbert, he said.

As the service ended, firefighters donned their trench coats and white gloves as they filed out before the gleaming casket. Two firefighters followed with Herbert's blackened helmet and cap.

From the front of the basilica and round the corner, firefighters stood in stiff salute two and three men deep in the blustering cold. Herbert's own fire house truck, Rescue 1, prepared to lead its man home.

But before the church went quiet, it marked Herbert's passing with the tolling of a fire house bell. It rang the code: Don Herbert is back in service.


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