July 19, 2016
Story by Erika Sherk; Photo Courtesy Matthew Wattie
It was the “most awful day” of his life. A wildfire was ripping through Fort McMurray and Frank Gibot had been evacuated from the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre (NLRHC.) He was away from his home – the Continuing Care Unit at the NLRHC – and had endured a seven-hour bus ride to safety. During the trip, he’d felt the heat of the wildfires through the bus walls and wondered if he was going to make it. The 64-year-old was tired and scared. However, once he arrived at Suncor’s Firebag site, Gibot spent no time feeling sorry for himself. Instead, he got to work.
“He called me over to his motorized wheelchair,” says Matthew Wattie, NLRHC Protective Services Manager, “and said, ‘I want to help, what can I do?’”
Wattie was hauling around several big yellow Emergency Response protocol binders. “I’d just been carrying them under my arm as I did nine other things and hadn’t found a place to put them down,” he says. “I said, ‘Frank, these are very important documents, can you look after them for me?’”
Gibot said he could. “He scooted himself over to a corner and set up a little spot from which he could see everything and look after our binders for us,” says Wattie.
Gibot was accustomed to high-stress experiences, having worked for years as a security guard. “I pretty well know all about security work,” he says. “And I wanted to help.”
It was a stressful time for everyone and some Continuing Care residents were getting cranky with each other. Gibot swooped in and ordered that they behave, says Wattie, and then returned to guarding the binders.
“Frank was key. He was key in those first 12 hours at Firebag,” Wattie says.
Eventually there would be seven Protective Services staff members onsite at Firebag. “But when Frank offered to help me there were three of us,” says Wattie. “So I said, okay, please watch these for me. And keep an eye on your peers. And he did. He did both of those things in an excellent fashion.”
Jennifer Knuth, an RN at the NLRHC, was moved when she heard Frank’s story.
“His mindset was ‘I don’t know if I’m going to make it … but I want to help out,” says Knuth. “It was absolutely incredible.”
Knuth had decided soon after evacuating that she needed to thank the first responders who were in the city as the wildfires tore through it. To date she has raised $20,000 and handed out 3,100 t-shirts to first responders and others who showed courage and kindness throughout the fire’s aftermath.
When she heard about Gibot, Knuth decided to give him a t-shirt. She and other Continuing Care staff made a special presentation to him. “I think he deserves it,” she says.
“It was a great honour,” Gibot says, of receiving the special shirt. “I felt good about it.”
Overall, he says that while it was awful, he doesn’t regret living through the evacuation. “It was pretty scary but it was a good experience,” says Gibot.