Interior Heroes Honored on Fourth of July

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke presented awards to thirty employees and volunteers as part of the 2017 Independence Day celebration at the Department of the Interior headquarters. The awards included employee valor awards, citizen bravery awards, and a safety award.

“As a retired U.S. Navy SEAL Commander, I have seen incredible acts of bravery and valor by our Nation’s finest. Placing your own life on the line so that others may live takes incredible resolve and courage. Today’s recipients have demonstrated unusual courage involving a high degree of personal risk in the face of danger. We should all be thankful,” Secretary Zinke said.

He noted that in valiant efforts to save lives, the awardees reached into burning cars; broke into smoke-filled houses; swam, dove into or boated through dangerous waters; administered emergency first aid in dangerous situations; and conducted amazing rescue operations, to name a few. Yet, he noted that, “These heroes would humbly tell you that they were just doing their jobs or doing what had to be done—even though many of their acts of heroism were not official duties.”

While on his way home from work, Ivan Hernandez, a Security Guard for the Bureau of Reclamation at Grand Coulee Dam, displayed an unselfish act of courage, placing himself at tremendous personal risk, while attempting to save the life of a citizen. When he witnessed a car crash into Banks Lake, Hernandez dove into the water in an attempt to rescue the victim. Unable to dislodge the seat belt, he resurfaced and procured a box cutter from an onlooker. Hernandez dove back in and re-emerged with the victim. He administered CPR until paramedics arrived.

 Although the victim did not survive, Hernandez’s unwavering determination and personal commitment exemplify the bravery of all those receiving awards. “He didn’t have to stop and he didn’t have to help, but he nonetheless he risked his life for a stranger,” Zinke said.

Tim Durden, a recipient of the Citizen Bravery Award, was not an employee but a volunteer at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Florida when he performed a rescue above and beyond the call of duty. When a swimmer began to go underwater at the pilings at the entrance of the Spring Run Canal, an eight-foot-deep area with a significant current, Durden arrived on the scene via kayak. The panicked swimmer grabbed the kayak and tried to board it in an attempt to stay above water.

Realizing that the frantic swimmer could tip over the kayak in the deep, rushing water, Durden calmed him down and then towed him back to his boat with a rope on the rear of the kayak. His quick thinking and calm demeanor may have saved both of their lives.

Those honored at the 72nd Interior Awards Convocation also included fire fighters, park rangers, law enforcement officers and a refuge manager. For example, only through heroism did six members of the Navajo Hot Shot Crew survive a large fire whirl during the 46,000-acre Cedar Fire on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona. Squad boss Brian Billie and squad members Kelly Burnside, Candelario Garza, Randy Nez, Aaron Pinto and David Thompson had to deploy their fire shelters due to the intense heat, flying ash, and woody debris.

It was like being inside an oven for half an hour, but Billie made sure all were safely tucked in before deploying his own shelter, maintained radio communication with all, and exited first to make sure it was safe for others.

At Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, National Park Service Ranger Bryan Eisenberg helped save lives on a crashed commercial helicopter carrying a family of four and the pilot. When the helicopter crashed in the waters adjacent to the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center grounds, all occupants were injured, one fatally. Nearby visitors and NPS staff immediately responded to initiate rescue efforts.

The pilot and three family members were recovered within the first few minutes of the crash. Ranger Eisenberg, without regard to the risks, entanglements, and hazards of the unknown dive environment, repeatedly dove through 20 feet of water to save the life of the fourth family member, a trapped boy.

In Montana’s Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, FWS Federal Officer Deborah A. Goeb rescued the passengers of a stranded boat by belly-crawling through sinking silt to get them. “Belly-crawling through sinking silt or diving through 20 feet of ocean sound like jobs for Navy SEALs, but they are just a few of the feats that have been performed by our brave men and women who work on Interior lands,” said Secretary Zinke.

Zinke also presented an award to Reclamation maintenance supervisor Darrin R. Williams for promoting an excellent culture of safety and health at Friant Dam in California, where the nearly 100 percent safety record of the maintenance staff has greatly reduced any future dangers at the dam. “Heroism isn’t always dramatic; sometimes it just means persistence in the face of obstacles,” the Secretary said.

These are just a few of the amazing accomplishments for which Zinke awarded gold medals and citations to employees and others on July 4. Watch  DOI Stories from the Field for the inspiring stories of more individuals in the future.