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Mildenhall NCO risks everything; recognized with Airman’s Medal

ROYAL AIR FORCE MILDENHALL, England (AFNS) -- His trip to Royal Air Force Mildenhall on May 12, 2014, started off as it would have on any other day. He pulled out of the driveway just after the sun began to set at 9:40 p.m. and began making the exact same turns he had done time and time again.

An hour earlier than his usual departure time, Staff Sgt. Vicente Gomez, a 100th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, made the usual right turn onto Eriswell Road, but came across smoke rising from two vehicles which had just collided moments earlier and a third car that had been run off the road.

Gomez slammed on his brakes. In a hurry, he simultaneously put his car in park and illuminated his car’s hazard lights.

As the smoke billowed from beneath the mangled metals, Gomez sprinted to the nearest car at the edge of a trench to try and assist.

"My body was overcome with adrenaline," Gomez recalled. "Once I reached the wreck and saw that the driver was stuck inside the car, I went into panic mode."

The man inside the vehicle was conscious, but in shock and trying to escape.

"His car was on fire and spreading quickly. I grabbed him from his waist and pulled with everything I had, but his legs were pinned beneath the dashboard," he said. "Every time I pulled, I felt like I was breaking bones and it seemed almost impossible to get him out."

Gomez said he thought he couldn’t do it by himself and noticed a line of cars pulled over on either side of the debris and ran for help.

"I remember about four to six people standing out of their vehicles looking at me with their phones to their ears as I screamed for help, but all I received in return were blank stares."

Without any response, he ran back to the crash victim and relentlessly tried to pry him from the wreckage, but the front end of the car became engulfed in flames.

"The heat was so intense, but I still had time to try to get him out," Gomez said. "And I wasn't going to give up on him."

With time against them and his energy dwindling, he made one final attempt to free the owner.

"The driver was conscious enough to where, together, he and I were able to get his legs unpinned," Gomez said. "Once free, I was able to pull him out of the car through his door window."

While dragging the victim away from harm's way, the vehicle’s interior filled with flames. The struggle to ensure that they both reached safety left the staff sergeant utterly exhausted.

"I was overcome with relief thinking that it was all over and that I could rest, but then I saw the other car," Gomez said.

Panic ensues

"I don't know how I missed it, I think that I just blocked it from my vision when I was struggling to get the man out of the first car," he recalled.

Not knowing if the other victim of the crash got out of their car, Gomez ran back over to the scene to inspect.

"When I saw that she was trapped in the car the exact same way that the man was, I was terrified," Gomez said. "I didn't know if I was going to be able to get her out because I was so exhausted, but I still had to try."

He hurried to the driver-side door and attempted to pry it open, but it was jammed closed and her window had been rolled up. He noticed the passenger door appeared to be unlocked, so he quickly made his way over to open it.

"I got in and grabbed her waist in an attempt to pull her, but her legs were pinned under the dashboard in the same way the man's were," Gomez said. "I began to pull her sideways, but she started screaming in excruciating pain, so I stopped instantly."

He assumed that the woman's legs were broken, so Gomez had to think quickly. The flames were taking over the interior of the vehicle and sweat began beading on his forehead from the extreme heat. His boots were caked in soot from the debris that was sweltering around him.

"It honestly crossed my mind that I was going to watch this women burn alive in her car if I didn't get help," he said.

Bravery remains

Just when he felt all hope of freeing her vanished, someone stumbled over.

"I saw a man coming out of the ditch and immediately waved him over to help me," Gomez said.

He didn’t recognize that the man he called over to help him was the initial crash victim. They began to work together trying to free the woman before time ran out. They managed to unpin the women's legs and pull her through the back door. They knew she was badly hurt, so the two of them carefully carried her until her painful screams forced them to stop.

"I was so thankful that he showed up when he did because I know without him I would have never gotten her out of that car or been able to move her away from the wreckage without further damaging her already broken body," Gomez said.

Once they reached a safe distance, Gomez noticed a few bystanders stepping up and tending to the crash victims. He then made a phone call to the woman's husband alerting him of his wife's status.

"She screamed out his phone number in an agonizing cry and when he answered I tried to explain what happened, but I could barely catch my breath and he didn't understand what I was trying to say," Gomez recalled. "The woman then shouted, 'Baby, I've been in an accident!' and he understood perfectly."

After Gomez caught his breath, he was able to clarify where they were located and her husband arrived minutes later to the scene.

"The second he got there, he fell to his knees while watching his wife's car continue to go up in flames," he said. "He panicked and yelled, 'Please tell me she isn't in this car, please!' My heart sank seeing him there and all I could think about was if I showed up to the same thing after hearing my wife was in an accident."

Gomez waved the man over and reunited him with his wife, but the cars were still engulfed in fire and worry began to rush back.

"I was nervous the fire department wasn't going to get there in time to extinguish the cars,” he said. “I was hoping that everyone was at a safe enough distance in case the flames reached the gas tank and set off an explosion."

While bystanders helped the victims, Gomez took advantage of the momentary break to gather himself and wait until a rescue team comprised of firefighters, paramedics and police arrived and the victims were taken to the hospital for treatment.

"After everything and driving to work, I could feel my adrenaline fleeting," he said. "My body felt as if I had just worked out the hardest I ever had; I was completely sore."

Honoring heroism

Nearly 22 months after the accident, Gomez was presented with a citation and distinction identifying his act of fearlessness.

"Staff Sgt. Vicente Gomez distinguished himself by heroism involving voluntary risk of life at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, on 12 May 2014," began the master of ceremonies. "On this date, sergeant Gomez arrived upon the scene immediately after a three-car collision."

As the emcee continued to recount the actions which saved the lives of two individuals, the Airman's Medal was pinned on the lapel of Gomez's uniform for his selfless actions on that night.