Firefighter in viral 'Happy Feet' photo: 'I'm just an average guy'

He said the bright side of the viral news is it shows the public the compassion of first responders as they do their jobs even in serious situations

The Sun Herald

D'IBERVILLE, Miss. — A firefighter who calmed an injured child by showing him a penguin movie on a cellphone said he's overwhelmed that the news story and a picture have made headlines worldwide.

Casey Lessard, 26, said he sees himself as "a hermit" and "an average guy" and is surprised by the attention. He said he was just doing his job as he showed the boy a movie to calm and distract him.

"I was in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing," he said. "We did everything that we could as well as we could and I wouldn't change anything."

Lessard and other D'Iberville firefighters had responded to a rollover crash Sept. 5 involving a woman and five children.

The woman and three children had been thrown from the SUV. The two youngest, strapped in their car seats, had not been ejected.

With the most critically injured taken to hospitals, a fourth ambulance was on its way for a preschool-age boy.

Lessard borrowed a cellphone, lay next to the child on the side of the highway, and showed the boy "Happy Feet," an animated movie about dancing penguins.

"He knew what was going on," he said. "That's why I tried to take his mind off of it."

A picture taken by Sun Herald photographer John Fitzhugh and the story went viral, as did Fitzhugh's video of the crash scene.

Mixed feelings
Lessard said he's not sure how he feels about his fame.

"I have a pretty small circle of friends that I hang out with and talk to," he said. "Other than that, I keep my head down.

"I do power lifting outside of work, and that's pretty much the only thing I do. I go to the gym and I go to work."

He also is a part-time firefighter for the Harrison County Fire Service.

He said he responds to wrecks nearly every day and thought he was just doing his job.

He said the bright side of the viral news is it shows the public the compassion of first responders as they do their jobs even in serious situations.

"We're not so cold that we don't see people how they really are," he said. "We're average people, too. We have feelings."

Lessard is single, but said he loves kids.

Before he became a firefighter five years ago, he took a job as a cook at a day-care center at the request of a fire chief's wife.

"She needed a cook," he said. "It got me out of serving tables and got me a steady paycheck and I got to hang out with kids all day and that was pretty fun."

Not part of training
First responders often give stuffed animals to injured or traumatized children. Showing them a video isn't a part of the training, Lessard said.

He said he and other EMTs sometimes show a cartoon if they need to start an IV on a child. "They see the needle and they're terrified," he said. Showing them a cartoon gets their minds off the needle. "Before they know it, it's over."

At the crash site
Firefighters arrived that day to find good Samaritans had stopped to offer aid. One of them was retired Los Angeles firefighter Rick Camarena, now of Gulfport.

Lessard said they pointed firefighters to where all the injured lay.

"We triaged," he said. Those believed to be the most severely injured were taken care of first and readied for arriving ambulances.

He said he helped stabilize a seriously injured child, then turned his attention to a preschooler identified by family friends as Gabriel Blair. The child would be the last put in an ambulance.

Gabriel appeared to be in pain and worried, Lessard said. A backboard was placed under him.

Lessard said he began asking Gabriel about his favorite colors and favorite foods.

"At first he was still fidgeting around, but of course he was in pain and so much was going on around him," he said.

Borrowed cellphone
Then he got an idea to show the child a cartoon to distract him. But he couldn't reach his cellphone. It was secure beneath his bunker pants.

"I would have had to take my pants off to get to it," he said.

Lessard had seen Camarena talking on a cellphone. He asked to borrow it.

"I got on Netflix. The first thing that popped up was 'Happy Feet,'" Lessard said.

"The boy started paying more attention to me than he did anything else, and started watching the video with me. It wasn't very long ? a few minutes, but it was definitely a positive change in his attitude.

"He's separated from his family. He's scared. You can't completely take that away."

A media firestorm
He's still surprised about the attention he's received. Media in Australia, Germany and Denmark and other countries soon asked for permission to use the Sun Herald picture.

The Sun Herald also shared Lessard's photo with the Associated Press, which resulted in a media firestorm. Soon the story and picture were trending on Facebook and Twitter. Countless others viewed the photo and a related video as other media outlets reported on it.

Numerous reporters tried to reach Lessard for an interview. He spoke with the New York Daily News by phone. He gave a recorded interview via Skype to CBS.

"I don't have cable so I don't know if it aired or not," he said.

He also did a live Skype interview with HNL.

Friends of the family
Hours after the crash, he learned those he'd helped are the family of a friend he's had since elementary school. The driver is his friend's fiancée. The children are theirs from previous relationships.

"I kind of felt my stomach sink," Lessard said.

"When on a scene, it doesn't matter who they are. You help them," he said. "Once they're in that ambulance, that's pretty much the last we hear of them."

Lessard said he is staying in touch with family members to check on their recovery.

The SUV's driver, Vanessa Darnell, and two of the three children ejected had broken bones and other injuries. Two of those children, Todd Blair and Avianna Walker, remained hospitalized last week but were improving. Darnell is out of the hospital. Gabriel's injuries were minor, and he was treated and released. Kaitlin Blair and Jaxon Walker, the youngest two, were not injured.

A Long Beach woman, Morgan Bogolin, who stopped to lend a hand that day along with her younger sister, has set up a GoFundMe account to help the family.

Understanding the crash
Darnell had been eastbound on Interstate 10 and took the exit ramp to Interstate 110. Somehow, she lost control of her SUV and it flipped several times, coming to rest on its side near the D'Iberville Boulevard overpass.

Police Capt. Terry Hines said the accident remains under investigation.

Witnesses told police slower-moving traffic was in the area before the crash.

Hines said he's worked with Lessard at many scenes.

"He's always happy, always smiling, always has a good word," Hines said.

Fire Chief Gerald Smith said he's proud of Lessard and all his firefighters.

"They go out there and do their jobs and when it comes time to get down and dirty with it, they know what to do," he said. "They're professional with it and they do what they can to ease the pain of others even in terrible situations."

Smith said Lessard came up with an idea that worked.

"I never figured it would go viral like this," Smith said.

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