HITCHCOCK, Texas — On the night of Aug. 25, as Hurricane Harvey inundated neighborhoods all over Galveston County, Virgil “V.J.” Smith, his mother, Lisa Pleasant Wallace, and his sister Diamond Smith, were trapped in their apartment and were looking for a way out to safety.
The Galveston County Daily News reports dealing with an epic flood was a new experience for the family, as it was for thousands of others trapped in their homes by rising water that night, and it would not be the only “first” washed into their lives by Harvey’s deluge.
Smith, 14, and his mother will fly to Arlington, Virginia, where on Friday Smith will receive the Young Hero Award from the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. Since 2008, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society has selected U.S. citizens and community organizations to be honored with the medal for their acts of courage and selfless service that epitomize the American spirit.
Smith, who was 13 at the time and is a student at Crosby Middle School in Hitchcock, was selected for the Young Hero Award for his actions in assisting 17 neighbors trapped in their homes by high water in the Pine Forest Apartments in Dickinson — with just an air mattress — during Hurricane Harvey.
A neighbor who lived on the second floor in another building of the complex had offered the family of three to come to his home to avoid being in the dangerous floodwaters.
“At 2 a.m., I kept hearing car alarms going off,” Wallace said. “I opened up the front door and about 3 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.
“You couldn’t see a car or anything. But I saw a Hispanic guy, and I asked him to help us and he did.”
Smith, who learned how to swim at the age of 7, is a typical teenager who loves to play video games, spend time with family and friends, play football and basketball and idolizes LeBron James, who he hopes to meet one day.
Shortly after they were rescued, Smith’s phone, which is waterproof, began to ring. He’d gotten a call from his friend who also lived in the apartments — they, all eight of them, couldn’t swim and were trapped.
But, they knew Smith could. That’s when Smith sprang into action, he said.
“I wasn’t scared at all,” Smith said. “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.”
With danger all around them, including fire ants, snakes and alligators, Smith, who also suffers from asthma, rescued 17 people in about two hours.
“I was so afraid for my son because he does suffer with asthma,” Wallace said. “But I also have faith in God, and I knew that he would protect V.J. from all hurt and danger. 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.”
For the next 12 hours on that night, a total of 30 people were in a one- bedroom apartment awaiting help from anyone who could help. They were tired, hungry and thirsty — they only had six bottles of water, which was shared via one cup among all 30 people in the home, Wallace said.
Later, a couple from Bayou Vista arrived via Jet Ski and offered to rescue a few at a time. The couple returned with a boat.
“It was quite an adventure when they rescued us, no more than six at a time, in the boat,” Wallace said. “We were hitting cars and all sorts of items because we couldn’t see where we were because it was so dark. But we were truly grateful for that couple from Bayou Vista because they didn’t have to do what they did.”
Known for his quiet and humble demeanor, Smith isn’t too fond of all of the attention he’s been receiving — and doesn’t consider himself a hero.
The teen, who has already racked up numerous accolades and certificates of recognition from several local organizations, was nominated for the 2018 Citizen Honors Award by his counselor Tommetria Womack, who has been a tremendous help to the family, Wallace said.
“Tommetria Womack has been a godsend,” Wallace said. “She deserves just as much notoriety as V.J. does because she not only helped us, but so many in Hitchcock after Harvey. I can’t thank her enough for what she’s done.”
Along with the award Smith will receive Friday, he’s also gotten the Youth Volunteer of the Year Award from the Hitchcock Chamber of Commerce, Certificate of Recognition from Communities in Schools Galveston County, a scholarship and a feature video of his heroism by SoulPancake, Above and Beyond Citizen Award from Hitchcock Independent School District, an African-American Image Award from the Booker T. Washington Exes, and a letter of recognition from U.S Rep. Randy Weber.
“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 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.”
“I still don’t even really know what drove me to do what I did that night,” 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.”
Information from: The Galveston County Daily News, http://www.galvnews.com
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Galveston County Daily News