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Johnson County man who died trying to save grandmother from flood is honored

Carnegie Hero Kevin Scott Johnson II, right, with his grandmother, Willa M. Pennington. Johnson died while attempting to save Pennington from drowning.
Carnegie Hero Kevin Scott Johnson II, right, with his grandmother, Willa M. Pennington. Johnson died while attempting to save Pennington from drowning. Carnegiehero.org

A Johnson County man who died trying to save his grandmother during a flood has received an award for heroism.

Kevin Scott Johnson was awarded a Carnegie Medal, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission announced Wednesday.

The award recognizes people in the U.S. and Canada who risk their lives “to an extraordinary degree while saving or attempting to save the lives of others,” according to the commission.

Johnson, 34, tried to save his grandmother, 74-year-old Willa Mae Pennington, when torrential rains funneled a wall of water into the valley along Big Mudlick Creek between Flat Gap and Staffordsville in July 2015.

The flood destroyed 60 homes and damaged scores of others, lifting mobile homes on the tide and splintering them against trees.

Johnson pushed through chest-deep water and got inside Pennington’s mobile home just as the water swept it away. He jumped into the muddy current holding her, and 12-year-old Logan Bowling, who had been with Pennington, followed them, according to the Carnegie commission.

The three clung to a tree until a piece of a wooden porch floated by. Johnson put his grandmother on it and Logan got on it as well, while Johnson remained in the water.

The flood swept all three of them downstream. Logan was able to climb a pile of debris to get into a tree, where rescuers found him, but Pennington and Johnson both died.

Johnson’s mother, Trina Cantrell, said his sacrifice has inspired people.

“I’m honored and so proud,” Cantrell said. “He has touched so many lives through all this.”

The flood also killed Richard Blair, 22, and Herman Eddie May Sr., 56.

Wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie started the hero fund in 1904 after being inspired by the story of two men who died trying to help others in a Pennsylvania coal-mine blast.

A total of 9,893 people have received the medal since 1904, out of more than 88,000 nominated.

Investigators from the commission dig through police and media reports and interview witnesses to make sure accounts of heroism are accurate and meet the high standards for the award, said executive director Eric P. Zahren.

“It’s a very thorough vetting process,” Zahren said. “Our award is really the most recognized for civilian heroism.”

The award in Johnson’s case included an initial grant of $5,000 to his survivors, who also could be eligible for other financial assistance, Zahren said.

The fund has paid a total of $38.5 million since 1904 in grants, scholarships, death benefits or continuing assistance, according to a news release.

Cantrell said she would like to use the grant to put up a memorial to those who died in the flood.

“Scott’s my hero,” she said. “I miss him every day.”

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