Minnesota man honored for bridge rescue efforts

35W bridge rescuer honored
Former U.S. Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell presents the Above and Beyond Citizen Award to Minnesota resident Matthew Miller Tuesday at Arlington National Cemetery. Miller was working construction on the 35W bridge in Minneapolis when he saw the bridge collapse and rescued several victims.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

(AP) - A college student who helped rescue injured workers at last year's Interstate 35W bridge collapse won an honor Tuesday from recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Matthew Miller, a 22-year-old student at Bethel University in St. Paul, was one of three people to win the Above & Beyond Citizen Honors, chosen from among 51 finalists representing each state and the District of Columbia.

The finalists were selected by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, which is made up of the 105 living recipients of the nation's highest military honor for valor.

Miller was working a summer construction job on the bridge when it collapsed, killing 13 people.

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"We are here today to honor three unique American citizens, ordinary folks ... who faced extraordinary circumstances and did extraordinary things."

He's credited with running to the bottom of the Mississippi River embankment and carrying many injured motorists out from under the collapsed span to safety.

Tuesday's presentations were made at a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on a brisk, sunny morning, with the Tomb of the Unknowns as a backdrop.

"On the east side of the Tomb of the Unknowns behind us, you can see a low relief sculpture of three Greek citizens -- each representing the virtues of peace, valor and victory," said former Secretary of State Colin Powell, an honorary co-chair of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

He said that image "symbolizes the character" of Tuesday's honorees.

NBC anchor Brian Williams, who hosted the event, said that people don't need to wear a uniform to serve the nation heroically.

"We are here today to honor three unique American citizens, ordinary folks -- that's the common theme here -- who faced extraordinary circumstances and did extraordinary things," he said.

"It is a blessing to be here today," Miller told the crowd, which included 34 Medal of Honor winners. "I believe God gave me the strength that day" to help get people to safety.

Another recipient was Don Schoendorfer, an engineer from Orange County, Calif., who developed an inexpensive wheelchair consisting of a lawn chair, two mountain bike tires, a frame and casters. His Free Wheelchair Mission has donated to developing nations more than 300,000 of the wheelchairs, which cost less than $50 to make.

"Our country has been blessed," he said. "Developing countries look to us for compassion."

The other recipient was Jencie Fagan, a Reno, Nev., middle school gym teacher who helped disarm a 14-year-old boy who shot and wounded two students in 2006.

"Each of us can be a hero by the choices we make every day," she said.

Miller has a busy few days ahead of him. On Wednesday, he's scheduled to appear on NBC's "Today" Show along with the other two recipients. On Monday, he'll throw out the opening pitch at the Minnesota Twins home opener.

"I gotta throw this week," he told reporters after the event. "Can't be hitting the dirt, it's embarrassing."

Miller, a double major in physical education and health education who graduates this spring, said with a laugh that he wasn't likely to return to construction work this summer.

"Maybe, we'll see," he added. "I'm a little nervous on bridges. A little paranoid when working on bridges."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)