OSI agent earns medal following heroic autobahn rescue

  • Published
  • By Thomas Brading
  • OSI Public Affairs

The creed 'Never leave an Airman behind,' is typically echoed in combat, but it took on a whole new meaning for one agent, who lived that ethos last year on the German autobahn.

It was just another day for Special Agent Joe Fernandez, until the familiar blur of the autobahn, known for its high speeds, gave way to an unexpected halt. As he joined the road, the OSI Det. 518 Special Agent was met with a standstill of vehicles and plumes of dark smoke unfurling into the morning sky.

"As I drove onto the autobahn, I immediately noticed a lineup of cars, signaling some kind of backup," Fernandez said.

Fernandez, a two-year OSI veteran, has faced his share of crises before, but this scenario was unprecedented for him. He wasn’t called to investigate the scene or scour it for clues; instead, a compelling set of circumstances had thrust him into action. An overturned car laid ahead in the heart of the roadway just ahead, he said, its metal frame twisted with smoke rising from its engine and debris scattered along the road amidst a string of stationary vehicles. Reflective cones marked the scene, but there were no first responders in sight.

The incident, he thought, must have been recent. In that moment, it appeared that Fernandez was the sole responder, with no choice but to confront the uncertain gravity of an unknown situation.

“Everybody kept their distance from the wreck,” he said. “So, I pulled up to the front of the pack. Nobody really spoke English [and] it didn't look like anybody was responding to the vehicle.”

At that decisive moment, Fernandez took control of the unfolding emergency. He parked his car at the roadside and grabbed a first-aid kit.  Around this time, he noticed the exhaust had been ripped from the car, a wheel torn from its axle was further down the road and the scent of gasoline filled the air.

“This all intensified the urgency of the situation,” he said, but amid the rising heat and pungent gasoline fumes, his concern was for the driver's safety. “I just wanted to make sure I got them out of there.”

Due to the car's awkward angle, assessing the driver's condition was challenging, he said. But Fernandez could see the driver hanging upside down, restrained by the seatbelt and unconscious. Fernandez called out to him, but silence was the only response.

It wasn’t just any driver either, he said. The unconscious man was wearing a sand-colored t-shirt, the kind that forms part of the standard Air Force attire. This added another layer for Fernandez, he said, because the driver was just like him, he thought; an active-duty member stationed thousands of miles from home.

"The first thing that crossed my mind was, 'Oh no, this guy's in the military'," Fernandez said. His suspicions were further confirmed when he spotted Air Force paperwork amidst the scattered debris. Fernandez added that, regardless of who the driver was – whether a German or American, civilian or military – the urgency of the situation would have remained unchanged. Yet, the revelation that the injured man was a fellow Airman added a poignant layer to the emergency. 

Braving the hazards, Fernandez carefully worked his way into the flipped car. Fernandez traced the line of the seatbelt across the driver's abdomen to the buckle, pressed it. At first, he tried to pull the driver out, but it was easier said than done. The shattered glass window, fragmented from the impact, was more of a barrier than an escape route. Fernandez didn’t want to cause further injury by dragging the driver through the jagged glass and sharp debris.

Between the clouds of smoke and gasoline clouding his senses, Fernandez had little time to assess the situation. So, he focused on a nearby door, despite it being warped and bent by the impact. After some effort, Fernandez managed to pry it open just enough to pull the driver partway from the mangled car. It was around this time that another bystander, who mostly spoke German, arrived. Working together, they moved the driver away from the immediate danger of the wreck.

Fernandez's Air Force training continued, he said. First, he began checking for major wounds or signs of external bleeding. After an assessment, he determined there was no need emergency tourniquets.

“I got my first-aid kit and applied pressure while wrapping his head in gauze,” he said. 

According to an award citation, around this time, Fernandez began cardiopulmonary resuscitation with continual sternum rubs until visible signs of life returned.

Fernandez then carefully tilted the driver's chin up to clear his airway. While applying pressure, Fernandez said he noticed the driver's eyes start to flutter. Conscious but still unresponsive, Fernandez continued the emergency protocol of applying pressure, supporting the driver's head and speaking to him loudly to maintain some level of awareness, he said, until eventually noticing a steady rhythm in his breathing.

“At that point, I was treating him for shock, as there were no other visible wounds that I could see,” Fernandez said.

By his estimation, 10-15 minutes passed before a local medical professionals arrived in a helicopter. Their medevac landed in nearby and paramedics quickly emerged to take over the care of the driver. Leading up to that moment, Fernandez continued his first aid measures. A medal citation would later say these actions were instrumental in saving the Airman's life.

Fernandez attributes his ability to act decisively to his training – not just the basics he learned as a prior enlisted Airman, but also the specialized skills he has acquired throughout his career in OSI, which has also bolstered his confidence in handling such situations, he said.

“The actions of Special Agent William ‘Joe’ Fernandez on that day were nothing short of incredible,” said Special Agent Ryan Music, OSI Det. 518 commander. “One never knows what they are capable of until they are faced with an extraordinary situation.”

His actions didn’t just earn him accolades from his boss, though, he was also presented with the Air and Space Commendation Medal in October by Col. Kevin Crofton, 52nd Fighter Wing commander.

“Joe is an incredible person,” Music said. “An absolute inspiration to our team and host wing community.”