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By David Staba
If you make a living by contemplating and documenting the exploits, tragedies and foibles of other people, you quickly realize their stories fall into three categories.

There's good news. There's bad news. Then there are the stories that resist such simple qualitative assessment.

Good news is usually the easiest to report and write, if not always the most interesting. The home team wins a game. Political types stop fighting for long enough to actually do something. A great-great-grandmother turns 100 on the same day her cat is rescued from a tree.

The bad stuff grabs the bigger headlines. Someone kills somebody -- or several somebodies -- for no good reason. A factory closes. An elected official is revealed to have violated the public trust and any number of laws by accepting secretive payments in return for giving away public property (not to name any names, or anything).

Good stories prove uplifting, even to the most cynical among us ink-stained wretches.

The bad ones can break your heart, even if you never knew the people involved beyond hearing them speak at a news conference or during an awkward telephone conversation.

Between them, they make up about 95 percent of what you read, watch or hear while ingesting your daily dose of what's happening in the world.

You don't run across stories like Donny Herbert's -- at once miraculously satisfying and achingly tragic -- nearly as often, if ever. Such complexity, when combined with stunning scarcity, produces Really Big News. And now the story of a man lost to the world for nearly a decade before returning, if briefly, has inspired a book -- "The Day Donny Herbert Woke Up," by Rich Blake.

The book, published in November, was excerpted in the Buffalo News. Herbert's wife, Linda, and four sons were interviewed in a recent "60 Minutes" segment on people who have emerged from minimally conscious states like the one that enveloped him for nearly a decade.

Herbert, a Buffalo firefighter, suffered grave injuries when a roof collapsed on him on Dec. 29, 1995, burying him under debris in the attic of a house on Buffalo's East Side, where he was trapped without oxygen for at least six minutes before his colleagues pulled him from the blaze.

The head trauma and lack of oxygen put the 34-year-old father of four boys first in a coma and then, after a brief period of semi-awareness, into an unresponsive haze. The accident and Herbert's resulting condition provided the worst sort of bad news, leavened only by an outpouring of public support capped by a fund-raiser at Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium the following summer, the last event held at the long-vacant arena.

Herbert and his family faded from public consciousness until the first days of May 2005, when word started to spread through Western New York that a man who had been alive in only the most technical of senses for going on 10 years suddenly sat up and started talking.

By Monday, May 2 -- two days after Herbert told a nurse's aide that he wanted to talk to his wife -- media from around the world was starting to converge on Father Baker Manor. Aside from the exceptional circumstances involved, interest was further fueled by the death of Terri Schiavo just a month earlier. I spent that afternoon outside the nursing home in a rural area of Orchard Park, trying to make sense of a story that didn't.

Herbert's immediate family understandably had much more important concerns than dealing with the media. His uncle, an attorney and former cop named Simon Manka, was a gruff but fair family spokesman, giving out enough details to confirm the reports of Herbert's awakening while keeping reporters and cameras at a safe distance from the firefighter's wife and sons. There would be none of the exploitation, political or otherwise, that surrounded Terri Schiavo's case if Manka could help it. As it would turn out, when it came to the story of how Herbert emerged from more than nine years of silence, there wasn't all that much to tell.

His doctors -- even the neurologist who had prescribed a pharmaceutical cocktail of medications that included treatments for Parkinson's disease and attention-deficit disorder -- couldn't explain it with any certainty.

His family, while joyous at the chance to talk to him again and fill him in on everything he had missed, did not speak to the media beyond a brief statement Linda Herbert made at a news conference.

Plans were made to move him to a rehabilitation clinic in Chicago, where his family hoped doctors could capitalize on the breakthrough, whatever its cause. Before the move, though, he fell while attempting to get out of bed, striking his head. Subsequent scans would show the blow caused further damage.

Herbert, who before the fall had experienced moments of lucidity, but nothing as extensive as the 16-hour burst of conversation that heralded his return, slipped back into a diagnosis of minimal consciousness. The following winter, he contracted pneumonia. On Feb. 21, 2006, 10 years and two months after the accident that ended his life as he had known it, Donny Herbert died.

Blake's challenge as an author was to not simply describe Donny Herbert, the medical miracle, but to flesh out the widely known details in depicting Donny Herbert, the human being. That's particularly important, since most readers go into the book knowing how it will end.

He does so by painstakingly describing the South Buffalo neighborhood where Donny and Linda grew up, tracing his growth from adventurous kid to star high-school athlete to factory worker to career firefighter.

Blake describes Herbert's first shift as a firefighter, a brutal 15-hour period that included an exhausting five-alarm conflagration that toppled the 240-foot steeple of St. Mary's Redemptorist Roman Catholic Church. Other calls sent the ladder truck to which he was assigned to the scene of a car accident that killed two people and a house fire that claimed a young married couple, Charles and Olivia McDaniels.

Blake describes Mike Lombardo, a firefighter who is now Buffalo's fire commissioner, calling down to Herbert for help. "He hurriedly instructed Donny to climb up to a porch roof that sat just outside the bedroom window," Blake writes. "Lombardo then reached through the window and presented Donny with something heavy. 'Here you go,' he announced, workmanlike. It was the nude, lifeless body of Olivia McDaniels."

Blake's description of Herbert's first day on the job, which opens the book, establishes an appropriate sense of foreboding. After overcoming initial doubts about his chosen field, Herbert evidently coped with the horrors of the job by devoting himself to his family and friends, using his skills as a carpenter and all-around handyman to help anyone who asked.

Herbert is portrayed as a man so committed to his family and his job that he seems almost too perfect. It would be easy to wonder if the author found himself trapped by strictures against speaking ill of the dead, particularly since Blake is a cousin to Linda Herbert.

While reporting on Herbert's awakening, then his death, though, I talked to a number of people who knew him, always getting the same impression that Blake conveys. Despite the well-earned skepticism with which most journalists view the world, some people really are that good.

(One of those I spoke with who knew Donny Herbert was Pat Coghlan, a retired Buffalo firefighter who was the lieutenant of Rescue 1, Herbert's unit, on the day he was injured. In the interest of full disclosure, his daughter, Margaret, is design editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. Pat is mentioned several times in the book, while Margaret is cited in Blake's acknowledgements.)

Herbert's loyalties were often in conflict, including during one of the book's most poignant scenes. When the staging for a portrait including Herbert's extended family takes longer than expected, he has to leave for work before a picture of his own family is taken. That night, he talks to his wife on the phone from the firehouse, telling her, "I can't keep going like this. I can't be there for everybody all the time. Something has to give."

Later in the conversation, he says, "Lin, something just doesn't seem right," Blake writes.

It would be more than nine years before Donny Herbert would carry on another conversation with his wife. The next morning, as he neared the end of a 15-hour shift, the last fire he fought changed their lives forever.

Blake balances the story's inherent sadness by portraying Linda Herbert's strength throughout her unimaginable ordeal, as well as her success in raising the couple's four sons, who ranged in age from not quite 4 years old to 14 at the time they lost their father as they had known him.

Three of the four were at their father's side within hours of his awakening, even if he was stunned to learn that Nicholas, still a toddler in his time-frozen mind, had a girlfriend and could talk on the phone. The oldest, Don Jr., was traveling in India when he got the news, but managed to make it home within a few days.

Their husband and father eventually faded from them almost as quickly as he had returned, but not before assuaging at least some of the pain wrought by the abruptness of his first departure.

"The Day Donny Herbert Woke Up" -- available at local bookstores and online at crownpublishing.com -- had all the elements of a wrenching tearjerker. Instead, Blake provides a strong case that miracles -- whether you choose to think them divinely inspired or scientifically explainable -- really can happen, if only temporarily.

And that can only be good news, no matter how bad some of the details can get.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Dec. 11 2007