Water Billing Specialist Saves Autistic Child From Dog Attack

“You cannot stand by and let a little child be torn up like that,” says grandmother of eight who received AWWA’s Heroism Award.
Water Billing Specialist Saves Autistic Child From Dog Attack
Darlene Barnwell, a billing specialist for the City of Ashville Water Department in North Carolina, received a national heroism award from the AWWA.

The men and women who work in the nation’s water and wastewater industry perform heroic acts every day. By eliminating waterborne pathogens, they save more lives than medical doctors.

So it comes as no surprise that Darlene Barnwell, 50, billing specialist for the City of Ashville Water Department, was honored by the American Water Works Association on November 2014 with the national Heroism Award.

Yet, what this mother of five and grandmother of eight did on the night of May 28, 2013, went beyond common valor.



It was Tuesday, a little after 7:30 p.m., and Barnwell was hosting a barbecue in the backyard of her North Carolina residence when a cry for help pierced the air. Instinctively, she and her guests raced toward the screams.

A mother, staying at a nearby hotel and holding a 2-week-old infant, said her autistic 8-year-old son, Elijah, was missing.

“Actually, all of us, everyone that I knew, ran down the road and began knocking on doors asking if anyone had seen a little child,” Barnwell says.

With her own dog in tow, she came upon a yard surrounded by thigh-high wire fence. Inside were four barking hounds and a boy — face down and bleeding — his clothes ripped and torn.

“I didn’t know if he was alive or dead,” Barnwell says. “He wasn’t moving, except when the dogs tugged at him.”

Pushing the hounds away, she picked up the child and carried him back across the wire fence to where paramedics had arrived.

Barnwell had scratches where the fence’s rusty barbs had dug in, but was otherwise unhurt. That was the last time she saw the child.

Elijah required 72 staples to repair damage to his scalp, and his ear was reattached. He spent 30 days in intensive care.

“I think anyone who would have seen that would have jumped in to save the little boy,” Barnwell says. “You just cannot stand by and watch a little child be torn up like that. I would never think twice about saving a child or anyone who was in that situation. If it were one of my grandkids, Lord willing that never happens, but if the tables were turned, I would hope someone would take care of my grandbabies.”

On Aug. 13, 2013, Barnwell received a golden medallion from the Asheville City Council for her selfless act.

“It was almost overwhelming,” she says. “That’s just something that you do. I appreciate it. It actually makes me red-faced.”

Barnwell, whose previous claim to fame was growing up in Kannapolis, North Carolina, a block from the late Dale Earnhardt Sr., says receiving the national AWWA Heroism Award was humbling.

“There are so many people in the United States who do courageous things every day,” she says. “I did not expect to win.”

Nominated by Steve Shoaf, water resources director for the City of Asheville, Barnwell says as a billing specialist she’s not accustomed to accolades.

“I send out people’s water bills and delinquent notices,” she says. “I’m the person people don’t like.”


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