Citizen Soldier aids civilians: Training pays off in building collapse
November 18, 2013
CAMP SMITH, N.Y. -- A New York Army National Guard soldier and police officer credits his military training for helping him save the victim of a building collapse in 2011.
"Being in the military, being calm, cool and collected definitely helped," said Sgt. Martin Gonzalez, recounting the day that he and other officers gave first aid to Tariq Mohmood Guja and helped extricated him from under some fallen roof trusses. "In the Army you're trained to go toward the fight. That's what we did that day."
For his actions, Gonzalez was awarded the New York State Medal of Valor in a ceremony here on Nov. 17. Now a Fallsburg, N.Y. police officer, Gonzalez was working as police officer for the village of Liberty, N.Y. when the structure -- a gas station under construction -- collapsed on the afternoon of Oct. 15, 2011.
It was very windy that day, and he saw them putting up the trusses when he drove by the site in the morning, said Gonzalez, a member of the 727th Military Police Detachment and resident of Woodburn, N.Y.
"I thought, 'it's a little windy to be doing that today,'" he recalled.
That afternoon, a person came into the police station lobby and told them that the gas station, which was about a block away, had collapsed, Gonzalez recalled. Though he didn't quite believe it, he and his fellow officer Devin Brust headed off on foot to investigate.
On the way, they saw a panicky construction worker running toward them, screaming, "My friends! My friends!" Gonzalez said.
"At that point I said, 'holy cow,' this is real," he recalled. The sight that greeted them when they arrived was "a disaster," he added.
"It was horrible," he recalled. "The building trusses were collapsed into the building itself." A construction worker told them the location of two people trapped under the wooden trusses, and he and Brust entered through a window.
They found Guja, the gas station owner, and Franco Suquilanda, a construction worker, trapped under the timber, Gonzalez recalled. Guja was bleeding heavily from a large gash on his forehead, and Gonzalez immediately thought, "without our help, they're not going to survive."
Guja was also in great pain and couldn't open his eyes because of his wound, Gonzalez said. As he and Brust crouched next to him in the closet-like space, Guja grabbed at his arms, moaned and asked if he was going to die, he recalled.
Gonzalez is a trained Army Combat Lifesaver -- a non-medical Soldier who can provide life-saving measures as a secondary duty if primary or combat missions allow. He responded with these skills, used Guja's shirt to apply direct pressure to his wound, checked his pulse and breathing and reassured him.
"We were doing what I learned in that class," Gonzalez said.
Liberty Police Department Sgt. Scott McAfee arrived and began coordinating medical and other emergency aid, Gonzalez recalled, while Brust prevented other construction workers from trying to free Suquilanda.
As they worked, a broken window frame swayed dangerously over their heads, Gonzalez said.
"It seemed ready to fall down," he recalled. "It was windy, and it was moving back and forth over us."
Firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) arrived about 10 minutes later and took over first aid, Gonzalez said. Brust used a chainsaw to clear away beams so the EMTs would have room to move Guja to a stretcher, and both victims were flown to a hospital, he added.
About six months later he ran into Guja, who was still recovering, Gonzalez said. Though Guja didn't remember what happened, he was very grateful for the officers' help, he added.
The village of Liberty later gave their Meritorious Service Award to Gonzalez, Brust and McAfee.
Col. Reginald Sanders, commander of the 369th Sustainment Brigade, presented the New York State Medal of Valor to Gonzalez. The Medal of Valor is presented for acts of "valor, heroism, courage or gallantry" in either a civilian or a military capacity, and is the highest state award a member of the National Guard can receive.
Sanders and Gonzalez's fellow soldiers applauded him at the ceremony. He responded humbly, saying that soldiers are different breed who put others first.
"The desire to serve our community courses through our blood," Gonzalez remarked at the ceremony. "I don't consider what I did that day special. I responded to a call for help and I acted."
He advised his fellow soldiers to rely on their training, trust their judgment, never give up, never give in and always fight.
"The Army gave us the skills to succeed, we always have the courage to get the job done," Gonzalez said.