RAF Lakenheath airman awarded Airman's Medal for rescuing 3 from crash fire
RAF LAKENHEATH, England — U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Greggory Swarz was awarded the Airman’s Medal on Friday for dragging three French airmen out of the fire that ensued after a Greek F-16 crashed during a multinational exercise in Spain.
The two Greek pilots and nine French airmen were killed when the fighter jet crashed on takeoff into five parked planes at Los Llanos Air Base in southeastern Spain on Jan. 26.
Swarz, a 492nd Aircraft Maintenance Unit electrical environmental systems specialist, was working on a plane when he heard what he thought was an engine misfiring. But then he saw people running and screaming.
When he stepped around the aircraft to have a look, he saw a wall of flames almost two stories high, he said during an interview at the 48th Fighter Wing Maintenance Professional of the Year Awards Banquet, where Gen. Frank Gorenc, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa, presented him the Airman’s Medal. The medal is awarded for a heroic act, usually involving the voluntary risk of life.
“I saw just a wall of flames just from one side to the other of the ramp, which was just a huge fire wall,” Swarz said. “So my first instinct was, I started turning around to run, and then kind of thought it over pretty quick and I was thinking there were people there.”
As the flames spread, Swarz said ejection seats and ammunition were going off and large fire extinguishers for the airplanes were exploding and “went flying around.”
Swarz found five servicemembers in a space surrounded by flames. He went through the flames to reach the group and pulled one to safety, rolling him on the ground and pulling his clothes off to put out the flames.
He went back through the flames two more times to pull out two more servicemembers. The third had lost his arm and Swarz used his belt as a tourniquet.
Because the fire spread, Swarz was unable to reach the other two.
Swarz said most of his fingers were burned, but described the injuries as minor and said they healed within a few weeks.
Swarz said he has learned that one of the airmen he helped rescue suffered burns over the majority of his body and is in a medically-induced coma. One airman lost a finger and part of another as well as suffering broken legs. The airman who lost his arm also suffered a broken leg.
During the banquet, 15 other airmen were awarded Air Force Commendation Medals — awarded to those who have distinguished themselves by meritorious achievement or acts of courage which do not involve voluntary risk of life — for their work during and after the accident. Three of the airmen were not present for the ceremony.
“We just recognized airmen who are willing to go above and beyond what we expect normal people to do, and instead of running away from the fireball they ran into the fireball,” Gorenc said. “It’s a validation of everything that’s good about what we try to do with our airmen and the Air Force.”
About 80 airmen from RAF Lakenheath and three F-15E Strike Eagles were in Spain for the Tactical Leadership Program, involving 10 NATO nations designed to enhance leadership and mission planning. The training was suspended after the crash in which eight U.S. airmen with the 492nd suffered minor injuries.
Swarz said he was in contact with one of the French airmen he rescued and his wife.
“I’m very happy … that they’re doing good,” Swarz said. “I always look forward to seeing their e-mails and seeing how they’re doing.”