updated 12/05/2012 AT 12:00 PM ET
•originally published 12/06/2012 AT 2:25 PM ET
They stepped up to help people in need, often putting themselves in harm’s way.
One thing PEOPLE’s incredible 2012 Heroes of the Year award winners all have in common: selflessness and compassion. This week, PEOPLE profiles individuals whose extraordinary bravery and kindness stood out this year.
Michael McDonnell, 51, and Dylan Smith, 23, of Belle Harbor, N.Y., are two of them.
During Superstorm Sandy Oct. 29, as a 6 ft. surge roared down their block, and a fire from a gas line explosion engulfed houses around them, McDonnell, a sales director for Chefs Diet, and Smith, a lifeguard, ushered six people to safety with a homemade rope bridge and Smith’s surfboard.
Says neighbor Katie Cregg, whom the pair helped: “Michael just took charge. He looked me straight in the eye, and I knew then and there we were going to be okay. And then the kid with the surfboard arrived like an angel, and everyone’s spirits lifted.”