'Spiderman' child rescuer Gassama starts stint with Paris firefighters

AFP archives | Mamadou Gassama outside the Élysée Palace in May.

Out came the sun and dried up all the rain: “Spiderman” is on his way up, again. Mamoudou Gassama wowed the world in May with his heroics, scaling a Paris façade to rescue a dangling toddler. Now he’s climbing the ladder with the city’s firefighters.


Six months on, the video is just as breathtaking. A tiny child suspended perilously from a fourth-storey balcony. A neighbour, arms outstretched, struggling to coax the boy to safety. And the frenzied crowd below. Suddenly, a figure appears, deft and nimble. He climbs the building, hoisting himself up one railing at a time, before plucking the 4-year-old from an unthinkable fate. Like a superhero.

The bystander-turned-rescuer, who instantly earned the monicker “Spiderman”, was Mamoudou Gassama, then a 22-year-old undocumented migrant from Mali on his way to watch the Champions League final on TV when he heard the commotion. The rest is history.

'I just did what I had to do,' Malian 'Spiderman' rescuer tells FRANCE 24

Two days later, Gassama was at the Élysée Palace, where French President Emmanuel Macron promised the young hero a fast-track to French citizenship in gratitude for his bravery.

The Paris Fire Brigade took notice of his heroics, too. “There are many common features between your gesture, Mamoudou, and the values upheld by the Paris Fire Brigade, [including] courage, audacity and also humility,” its commander, Jean-Claude Gallet, told Gassama the day after his meeting with Macron.

On Monday, Gassama began a civic service stint with the French capital’s fire department. He will receive general and practical training and work four 24-hour shifts a month, or eight 12-hour shifts, riding with first responders over the next 10 months, the brigade told AFP. His role with the prestigious brigade will pay him €472 a month, according to the contract he signed in July.

The gilded French palace and illustrious Paris fire brigade are a long way from Gassama’s native Mali, where he never went to school – “I farmed millet with my family,” he told the French daily Le Parisien over the weekend – before setting off at 15 on a hazardous year-long journey to join his older brothers in Europe. He travelled through Burkina Faso, Niger and Libya before a failed first voyage by sea to Italy. Gassama finally reached Italian shores on a subsequent attempt, but only after he was rescued at sea by a humanitarian vessel. He arrived in France last year.

French President Emmanuel Macron meets Mamoudou Gassama at the Elysée Palace in May.
French President Emmanuel Macron meets Mamoudou Gassama at the Elysée Palace in May. AFP Archives

Gassama hasn’t exactly been lying low since his daring rescue made headlines the world over. His approximate French and quiet demeanour had him relying on one of his brothers to answer questions during myriad TV appearances after his good deed pushed him into the spotlight. But Gassama has since been taking French lessons and he was naturalised as a French citizen in September.

And there have been awards. The City of Paris gave Gassama its highest distinction, the Grand Vermeil medal.

He also enjoyed a hero’s welcome in Mali at the invitation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. At a reception in his honour in the capital Bamako, Gassam saw his father for the first time since leaving the country in 2011, his brother told Le Parisien.

“It was the first time my father had been to the capital, a day-and-a-half’s journey from the village,” his older brother told the newspaper.

The man affectionately nicknamed Spiderman then made a very different journey, to Los Angeles, where he was honoured by Black Entertainment Television.

At the Staples Center before an audience of thousands, he accepted a BET Humanitarian Award alongside fellow recipients that included Parkland shooting hero Anthony Borges and James Shaw Jr., who wrestled a gunman to the ground at a Waffle House in Nashville earlier this year. The ceremony had Gassama rubbing elbows with the likes of rapper Snoop Dogg and the actor Jamie Foxx.

After months spent in a limelight beyond dreaming, the young Franco-Malian hero now turns his attention to another dream under a different kind of light – the revolving blue one atop Paris’s slick red fire trucks.

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