By Sgt. 1st Class Dave S. ThompsonApril 24, 2008
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas - Nico DeGreef, the chief project engineer for U.S. Army South, was enjoying a peaceful drive along the scenic 40-mile road from Panama City to the Gatun Lake Pueblo in Colon when his solitude was suddenly shattered by a memorable series of events.
DeGreef was in Panama measuring the accomplishments of a U.S. Army engineer team that arrived in country in early February to make repairs and improvements to schools, clinics and community centers as part of Beyond the Horizon (BTH) 2008. An international humanitarian and civic-assistance operation sponsored by U.S. Southern Command and planned and supervised by U.S. Army South, BTH is designed to spread goodwill and build relationships with partner nations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. DeGreef was to meet with Severo Martinez, a friend and well-respected local farmer in the Pueblo community, to discuss future projects.
For DeGreef, it was like returning home. He began his career with U.S. Army South in 1986, when it was still stationed in Panama, and remained there until the command moved to Puerto Rico in 1999, and then to San Antonio in 2003. Fluent in Spanish, he had purchased land along the Gatun Lake years before and hired Severo to look after it.
DeGreef pulled onto Severo's humble property along the water's edge and surveyed the familiar rugged terrain of tropical foliage and rolling hills that he loved so well. It was the end of the dry season and the lush green that usually filled area had not yet fully returned. The lake was several feet below its normal level and Nico cast an incredulous look at the numerous stumps and water plants that rose above the water's surface.
His thoughts were interrupted by Severo's 13-year-old daughter Antonina, who told him that her father had not yet returned home from work. She mentioned that Severo knew DeGreef was coming and was probably waiting for him at his property across the lake.
Hearing this, DeGreef immediately faced a dilemma. To get to his land, he would have to drive to another location several miles away, park his vehicle, and trek through two miles of jungle over hilly terrain. If so, he ran the risk of missing Severo, who traversed the lake in a canoe. It was then that Antonina told him Severo had recently purchased a cell phone and had it with him.
"I was surprised to hear that," says DeGreef. "He's a humble... rugged sort of outdoorsman who uses a machete instead of modern machinery. He's the last person I expected to own a cell phone."
He took the number from Antonina and dialed Severo. His features suddenly turned from amusement to dread as he heard Severo's faint voice: "Senor Nico, Senor Nico, ayudame! El fuego!"
Help me! The fire!
"I realized he was in grave danger," says DeGreef. "For him to ask for help, I knew he was in trouble. I didn't want to alarm his daughter but I could tell she knew something was wrong. I told Severo to get outta there, to get down to the water, but he just kept repeating, 'Senor Nico, ayudame!'"
DeGreef sprang into action. He ordered Severo's 12-year-old son Uribe to find two oars and locate the key that secured a wooden canoe to the dock, and within minutes they were ready to go. He helped Uribe into the canoe and launched it into the water, wading through several hundred feet of mud and aquatic flora until he reached a point deep enough to board the canoe without sinking it under his weight.
The first thing he noticed as he began to row was a slight curvature in the homemade canoe that caused the craft to track annoyingly to the right. Even worse, a 30-mile-an-hour headwind and the gnarled stumps that loomed out of the water threatened to capsize the canoe. Undeterred, he navigated around the obstacles, fighting the unfavorable winds and urging young Uribe to match his powerful strokes.
Driven by adrenalin and a single-minded focus to save his friend, DeGreef ignored the cramps and stabbing pains of fatigue in his arms and shoulders as he and the boy skirted around a bend in the lake. As they rowed around to the other side, they saw thick smoke and leaping flames that were raging out of control on his land. They had been rowing non-stop for some 40 minutes and as they neared the property, DeGreef spotted the stationary figure of Severo laying face down on the ground. He had been burning a pile of brush and old branches when the winds picked up and spread the fire to the surrounding foliage. He battled the flames for over four hours, running back and forth to the lake with a bucket, trying to save the lakeside house, until he collapsed.
DeGreef rowed as fast as he could toward the inferno and leaped into waist-high water, leaving Uribe to secure the canoe. With long strides, the 6'6" DeGreef scaled the steep embankment and ran toward Severo at a full sprint. As he reached him, DeGreef could feel the searing heat and hear the crackle of dry leaves and twigs being consumed by the fire.
"I got to him and immediately turned him over on his back," says DeGreef. "His breathing was shallow and ragged and foam and snot oozed from his mouth and nose. I could see that he was conscious but disoriented and he was moaning and fidgeting and saying things I couldn't understand."
Feeling the fire closing in, DeGreef heaved Severo up towards his chest and carried the 220-pound Panamanian down the embankment to the water's edge. He grabbed a container out of the canoe, filled it with water and put it to Severo's mouth.
"He was unresponsive at first, and then he grabbed at the cup and started sucking the water down. I doused him with water to cool him off and tried to calm him down and reassure him he was alright."
Back at the house, Antonina had wisely notified a neighbor who owned a motor boat and it soon arrived with Severo's 25-year-old son Basillio on board. Basillio took one look at his father and, thinking he was dead, began to wail. DeGreef calmed the young man and assured him that his father was alive and would survive but that he needed medical aid quickly. They hoisted Severo into the boat and Basillio, Uribe and the boat-driver sped off with him across the lake and toward the hospital.
DeGreef watched them leave and then turned his attention back to the fire. The place where Severo had collapsed was now in flames and the swirling winds were fanning the blaze into a popping, crackling, fast-moving frenzy. As the smoke billowed upwards, caught in the heavy wind, DeGreef climbed into the battered canoe and pushed away from the shore, shaking his head in disbelief as he watched the flames spiral out of control, his house consumed by fire.
As the adrenaline wore off, he was suddenly struck with the realization of what had happened. He replayed the event over and over in his mind and marveled at the remarkable coincidences that had put him in the right place at just the right time. As he returned to Severo's home and got into his car to go to the hospital, he concluded that it was really no coincidence at all.
"I don't consider myself a hero," says DeGreef. "It just wasn't his time to go. I believe I was simply the tool that God used at that moment to save a good man for a better day."
Severo suffered carbon monoxide poisoning and heat exhaustion, but is expected to make a full recovery. He, his wife and their 11 children will forever be grateful to Senor Nico. And for many years to come, Uribe will tell the story of how the big American arrived just in time and fought the wind, the smoke, and the fire to save his father's life.
"I did indeed find it to be an exceptional act of cool-headedness and courage," said Col. Kevin Woods, U.S. Army South Deputy Commander for Support, who had accompanied Nico to Panama. "Although, I was not at all surprised that Mr. DeGreef had acted in this way. It seemed in perfect keeping with his unselfish character and what I have come to expect from him."
(Sgt. 1st Class Dave S. Thompson, U.S. Army Reserve, works in the Public Affairs Office of U.S. Army South)