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A fallen firefighter's final gift Waking after 10 years, 'Donny' Herbert gave his family the closure they needed to move on

When Buffalo Firefighter Donald J. Herbert awakened from his semiconscious state on April 30, 2005, he gave his four sons the greatest gift any parent could give a child.

For 10 years, his sons had felt deep anguish, watching their father in a wheelchair, on a feeding tube, and wondering how much he was suffering, how much he knew what he had lost.

The day he woke up, he thought all four boys were the same age they had been when he suffered a catastrophic brain injury fighting a fire in December 1995. The boys talked with him, about their shared love of fishing and hunting; the older ones even introduced their girlfriends. The experience, as brief as it was, brought the four sons together.

"I definitely believe Don hung on for us," his wife, Linda Herbert, said in an interview this week. "Then when he woke up and didn't remember any of it, that was a gift to us. I think God protected us. It was a relief that the kids knew he had not suffered and sat in anguish for 10 years."

Linda Herbert is telling her story now -- to the nation.

On the eve of the publishing of her cousin Rich Blake's book, "The Day Donny Herbert Woke Up," the family's story will be part of a CBS "60 Minutes" segment called "Awakenings," airing Sunday night. Tuesday, she and Blake will appear on ABC's "Good Morning America."

"It's kind of hard, bringing it up again, hard on the kids and hard on me, but the good thing is we can raise public awareness that there are a lot of people in the minimally conscious state that Don was," she said.

That's not her only cause.

"The other idea is that [firefighting] is a dangerous job," she added. "People become more aware of the risks those guys take and the danger they're in."

Linda Herbert glows when she talks about her four boys: Don Jr., 26, an Alfred University graduate; Thomas, 25, now an NFTA police officer and a University at Buffalo graduate; Patrick, 23, a Brockport State graduate and fisheries biologist; and Nicholas, 15, a sophomore at Bishop Timon-St. Jude High School.

In a move that would make their father proud, the three older sons plan to take the Buffalo fire exam. All the boys share their father's interest in helping other people, and they've seen the family-like camaraderie of the Buffalo Fire Department.

"If that's what they choose, I would be proud of them," their mother said. "I would support them 100 percent."

How about the risk?

"You just have to accept it," she said. "I've learned, and they've learned, you just can't escape fate."

She's convinced her four sons have become the young men they are, partly because of their father's ordeal. It helped shape who they are.

"If he had died in that fire that day or hung on for a few days in the hospital, I don't know if we would have gotten over the shock," she said. "We drew so much strength from him every day.

"During those 10 years, you always felt there had to be a reason," she added. "We just didn't know what it was. I feel I got that answered in a sense. They needed the freedom to be able to move on. Don freed them to go on with their lives."

The 10-year ordeal turned them into stronger young men, even if it was heartbreaking to witness the pain they felt.

Linda Herbert believes her four sons could have gone either way, after dealing with their father's catastrophic injury.

"They could have used it as a crutch, or they could have used it to make their dad proud. They did that, in a humble way."

In the interview in her South Buffalo home, Linda Herbert also talked about the day her husband died.

She knew the end was near, when a nurse at Mercy Hospital, where Herbert had been taken with pneumonia and a fever of about 105 degrees, told her to gather her family.

So Thomas, then an Atlanta police officer, caught the last flight out that night. Another son, Patrick, had come home from Brockport State College. Sons Don Jr. and Nicholas already were here.

Early on the morning of Feb. 21, 2006, Herbert's wife and four boys gathered around him to say good-bye.

"I said to Don, 'All your boys are here. We're here with you. It's OK,' " Linda Herbert recalled. "We were watching on the monitor, and we knew when his heart stopped."

Donald Herbert still was attached to his respirator.

"Donny [Jr.] just leaned over and said, 'Dad doesn't want this anymore.' And then he just lifted up the respirator."

Looking back at his death almost two years ago, Linda Herbert thinks it makes sense when and where he died -- in the same hospital where he had been born.

"It was just the way it was supposed to be," she said. "All four boys were here, and he was here in his neighborhood, about a mile, a mile and a half, from home, with his family and friends."

Linda Herbert is pleased with the book written by her first cousin, Blake, a West Seneca native and senior editor at Trader Monthly magazine.

The book gave her and her family a chance to tell their story, in their own time frame. They weren't ready immediately after Herbert's death. The book also answers many people's questions about Herbert's life, his injury, his awakening and his death.

In the long run, when the four sons have their own children, when they're older and look back at that 10-year period, their mother hopes the book will help provide some closure for them.

"I just hope that when people read it, they don't just feel sorry for us," she said. "We had great times, and even when Don had his disability, we all drew strength from that.

"I have four beautiful kids who are healthy. They loved their dad, and they love me. They wouldn't have moved on with their lives if Don had remained in the condition he was in.

"He gave them permission to move on."


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