JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas --
“There’s no way anyone could have survived,” Greg Gangnuss thought as he pushed through a whirlwind of dust, smoke and debris toward the hazy silhouette of a mangled helicopter.
A hand reached out from a small window under the helicopter’s rotor shaft — the first sign of life. Gangnuss climbed atop the downed British Puma MK2, removed the door and began clearing a path into the collapsed passenger compartment. He spent nearly the next two hours on his stomach, working in thick smoke, dust and leaking fuel, carefully extracting survivors and the deceased from the wreckage.
A civilian member of the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center, Gangnuss was on a voluntary deployment to Afghanistan as a senior environmental advisor for the Ministry of Defense Advisor Program when a helicopter carrying nine coalition members crashed after striking a cable while landing at the NATO Resolute Support Mission headquarters in Kabul on Oct. 11, 2015, killing five people on board.
Gangnuss and Army Maj. Reuben Trant were two buildings away when they heard the crash. Trant grabbed a fire extinguisher and rushed outside.
“You couldn’t see the helicopter through all the smoke and dust,” Trant said.
As the dust cleared, he saw the helicopter lying on its right side in a pool of fuel and Gangnuss was already inside.
“Greg ran in there before he could fully see what he was running into,” Trant said. “There wasn’t time for shock or an emotional response. We knew the helicopter was carrying coalition forces and they needed our help.”
Gangnuss vividly recalls the second person he helped free from the wreckage, U.S. Air Force Col. Laurel Burkel.
“When we first opened the door, all we could see were boots sticking out,” Gangnuss said. “The medic was taking toe pulses as we worked to free them. When we pulled her out, I saw she was an American colonel and I thought, ‘This is one of ours.’”
Rescue efforts continued as darkness fell. Trant held a portable light so Gangnuss and others could see within the cabin.
Ninety-eight minutes after impact, Gangnuss emerged from the wreckage with the final casualty. Soaked in fuel, sweat and blood, Trant and Gangnuss walked back to their building where they cleaned up. They didn’t find out how many people had lived or died until several days later.
Burkel, one of the four survivors, has no memory of the crash.
“My last real memory is a sensation of the helicopter tumbling forward, and then a general dream-like feeling of chaos, confusion and yelling before I came to in a (hospital) bed,” Burkel said.
She suffered a broken vertebra, her second cervical neck vertebra, an often deadly injury referred to as a hangman’s fracture. In Burkel’s case her injuries nearly caused an internal decapitation.
“By all accounts, I should not be alive today,” Burkel said. “It was remarkable anyone survived the crash. The fact that four of us survived is in no small part thanks to Greg and all the other first responders who put their lives on the line.”
One day after the crash, Burkel walked without assistance to the aircraft that flew her from Bagram Airfield to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany where she underwent surgery to install a spine-stabilizing halo, remove a damaged disc and install a synthetic bone plug. She spent the next few months of her recovery in Germany and wore the halo for three months followed by a soft collar. She was in her flight suit and back at work by mid-February 2016.
“My approach to recovery and moving on was to honor, celebrate and respect the efforts of Greg and everyone else, as well to honor and celebrate my two folks and the others who were lost,” she said.
Now the Air Mobility Command fuel efficiency division chief, Burkel has met a handful of the people who pulled her to safety and tended to her that day. She hopes to one day meet Gangnuss, too.
“There was a good three to four inches of jet fuel. The whole thing could have blown up,” Burkel said. “How powerful is to meet the people who saved your life? How powerful is it for them to meet you?”
Gangnuss returned to his Air Force Civil Engineer Center Base Realignment and Closure program management work at Joint Base San Antonio in May 2016. AFCEC is a subordinate unit of AFIMSC.
On Feb. 22, the Air Force recognized his heroism when Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of Air Force Materiel Command, AFIMSC’s parent command, presented him with the Air Force Civilian Award for Valor. The award is reserved for heroism and courage exhibited by individuals who voluntarily risk personal safety beyond the call of duty.
“This is an amazing story about one of our Airmen,” Pawlikowski said to the audience during a Joint Base San Antonio commander’s call attended by about 500 AFMC members assigned here.
“We deploy civilian Airmen and all civilian Airmen who deploy do it voluntarily. But we don't ask you to go into (crashed) helicopters and pull people out while you're there, but you do it anyway, don’t you, because we're all Airmen,” the general said to Gangnuss before the medal-pinning ceremony at the end of the call.
Those who served alongside Gangnuss in Afghanistan are pleased to see him recognized for his bravery.
“Greg is one of those American heroes I always wanted by my side when we performed our mission,” said Army Col. Thomas Tickner, former director of Combined Security Transition Command–Afghanistan Combined Joint Engineering. “It’s no surprise Greg was one of the first responders to the crash and stayed throughout the rescue effort even though he was at risk himself.”
“I am extremely proud to have served with Greg,” said Col. Adrian Crowley, Ministry of Defense branch chief at CSTC-A. “It wasn't until after I knew him a month that I heard rumors about his heroics. Greg was very passionate about his job and helping his fellow coalition team members.”
Gangnuss attributes his actions that day to compassion.
“I didn’t know if anyone could be saved, but I knew fellow human beings were in need of assistance and comfort,” he said.