Eagan man named American Legion Firefighter of Year

Amid crashes, fireman saves lives

EAGAN — The winner of the Minnesota American Legion Firefighter of the Year dragged a highway crash victim to safety despite being struck by a vehicle.

Paul P. Burgett of Apple Valley is a firefighter at the Eagan Fire Department’s Station 1.

Paul Burgett

On the morning of Nov. 13, 2021, Burgett responded to a crash on icy roads in Eagan. He and his crew witnessed another crash on an adjacent icy bridge deck. The second crash involved three vehicles and was 50 feet from the end of the bridge.

Burgett, a Marine veteran, noticed the three vehicles were blocking the right and center lanes. One vehicle had a female in her car. A woman stood outside of a minivan. The third vehicle was empty but blocking the center lane.

As Burgett, his captain and a paramedic crossed the highway, a car approached rapidly, failing to take notice of the icy bridge, and slid out of control at 60 to 70 mph.

The firefighters ran for cover toward the far highway shoulder and heard the car strike the empty vehicle in the center lane. Metal and plastic flew over their heads.

They realized cars were careening into the crash scene. Now there was a man and a woman standing outside their cars, right on the highway in the middle of it all.

Burgett called to them. The woman and the female who had been sitting in her car moved to a safe area behind a guardrail. The man, however, refused to come. He stayed by the minivan, so Burgett exposed himself to the oncoming traffic to figure out why, in hopes of preventing the man’s death. The captain stayed with the females, assessing injuries and interviewing them.

The man’s wife was trapped in the front passenger seat. Her door had been broken, and she could not exit.

Burgett took her arms to assist her from the minivan by pulling her across the seats, then he ordered her and her husband to the safe area behind the guardrail.

As they neared the guardrail, Burgett looked back and noticed a white SUV heading right toward them. He told the man and woman to run, then he was struck by the SUV and knocked unconscious.

“As I flew down the highway, I remember everything spinning and then the lights went out,” he recalled.

The captain began assisting, and Burgett came to his senses. He immediately saw the woman who had been in the minivan lying unconscious on the ground in front of him. He stood up and attempted to lift the woman, but a searing pain in his left leg prevented it.

He told the husband to lift the legs of his wife and help carry her to safety. Together, they lifted her to the shoulder.

Meanwhile, a pickup careened into the other crashed automobiles at 70-plus mph, knocking the vehicles sideways. The captain had to dive to avoid being struck, and smoke began rising from the minivan. Somehow, the sliding cars didn’t hit any of them.

“If the adult females, the husband and the wife had remained in the vehicles on the highway,” says the nomination, “they most likely would have lost their lives by the last impact.”

Burgett was taken to Regions Hospital in St. Paul. The unconscious wife was taken to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. She survived her injuries.

Burgett and his wife, Natalie, have a son. He is a member of Minneapolis Post 1.

He received three previous awards for saving lives in his career. Two came while working the Hopkins Fire Department and one while working for North Memorial Ambulance Service. He graduated from the paramedic course at Century College in 2018 and is a graduate of the Camp Ripley Firefighter Honor Guard Academy. He is part of the Eagan Fire Department Honor Guard.

He has gone through multiple surgeries and undergone therapies since saving lives at the icy bridge. He engages in physical therapy two to three hours a day, three or four times each week.

“He will have to wear orthotics for the rest of his life due to nerve damage that he suffered in this incident,” says the nomination. “Despite his injuries, he expects to return to full active duty as a firefighter soon, in June of 2022.”

“I’m thankful that I can work for such a great community and alongside such a stellar team of professionals at the Eagan Fire Department,” he said. “I know that we did the best we could under difficult circumstances and would gladly do it again to save the lives of the people we serve.”

The nomination was written by Eagan Fire Chief Hugo Searle and Eagan Post 594 Commander Wayne Beierman. Burgett will receive the honor at the Department Convention.