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Courage Under Fire

When Specialist Jesse Hernandez came upon a burning bus with 42 people trapped inside, the California infantryman unleashed the most crucial weapon in his arsenal: a cool head.
SPC Jesse Hernandez of the California National Guard looks out over California State Route 60, where he quickly acted after seeing the fire. Photos by Brad Torchia
SPC Jesse Hernandez of the California National Guard looks out over California State Route 60, where he quickly acted after seeing the fire. Photos by Brad Torchia

 

Specialist Jesse Hernandez was running late for work. It was Oct. 18, a Sunday evening, and he was on his way to pull the night shift as a custody assistant at the North County Correctional Facility in Castaic, CA. It was, as he says, “the equivalent of Monday morning” for him, and the last thing he wanted to see were brake lights slowing his already long commute on State Route 60 to the jail northeast of Los Angeles. 

Alas, there they were. At first, he thought there was an accident. But then he saw a large charter bus blocking two lanes of the highway. A fire blazed in the back engine compartment. As he approached, he saw smoke inside the cabin and people lined up at the front ... but not leaving. 

Now I’ll be late for sure, he thought, as he pulled off to the side of the road. He parked his Toyota Scion 50 yards from the bus and ran to the door. When he got there, he saw the bus driver inside, kicking, kicking, kicking at the door. It wouldn’t budge. Later, Hernandez would learn that an electrical problem caused the door to malfunction. Why the driver didn’t open the door manually, however, Hernandez never learned. 

Black smoke continued to pour into the cabin. The air reeked of burning plastic and rubber. Dozens of people crowded the aisle behind the bus driver, clamoring to get out. Hernandez had to act—he had to act fast, and he had to act intelligently. Because of his training in law enforcement and as a member of the California National Guard’s D Company (Weapons), 1st Battalion, 160th Infantry Regiment (Light), he was able to do both. 

All 42 people on board the bus would soon be safe because Hernandez applied both his training and his practical experience. We’ll get to the details in a minute, but what’s important to know now is that Hernandez had been preparing for this moment for years. As his friend and fellow Guard Soldier Specialist John Purcell put it, “You couldn’t have had a better person come upon a burning bus.” 

Days later, when his phone wouldn’t stop ringing with people offering congratulations, when his Facebook page blew up with attaboys, and when he told his story at a press conference in downtown LA, Hernandez wondered what the big deal was. A bus was on fire. People were trapped inside. What was he going to do, leave them there? 

“It’s part of our job. We have to help others. We have to respond to stuff like that,” he says. “That’s what we’re trained to do.” 

For Hernandez, 25, that training is twofold—both the police academy curriculum and National Guard BCT focused on the same areas. Those were “how to work under pressure and stress, [and] how to multitask and visualize everything,” he says. 

Hernandez joined the California Guard in 2014, having already worked in law enforcement for two years. He had considered enlisting in the military right out of high school but put it off. When a friend told him about the Guard, he decided to sign up because he didn’t want to regret missing out on the military experience later in life. Purcell says Hernandez joined the unit much more mature and with more technical training (via law enforcement) than a typical newbie private. 

Hernandez says he quickly realized that his twin passions of military and criminal justice overlapped in crucial areas. “Discipline, honor, integrity, respect, leadership—all of that comes into play,” he says. 

For SPC Jesse Hernandez, public service is part of the daily routine. The California National Guard infantryman, who works as a custody assistant at a Castaic, CA, jail, credits both his military and law enforcement experience for helping him maintain composure as first on the scene at a roadside bus fire in October. His decisiveness and swift action resulted in the rescue of the driver and 41 passengers.

He possesses an endless desire to improve himself, and both the Guard and law enforcement enable and encourage that craving. Hernandez is also relentlessly curious about anything he is involved with, says Purcell. 

Purcell served in the Marines before joining the National Guard and deployed to Afghanistan in 2012. His experience there has been a frequent topic of conversation with Hernandez on drill weekends. “We’d be out in the field and have downtime, when we didn’t have any particular mission to accomplish,” Purcell says. “Jesse would come up to me and ask about certain things— 

‘Hey, when you were in Afghanistan, how did you do this? What would be the proper way to do that?’ ” 

Though he works in law enforcement as a civilian, Hernandez says he never wanted or pursued a related MOS. Instead, he chose 11B (infantry) and loves it for its emphasis on camaraderie, which is every bit as strong as in the law enforcement community. “You’re driven to push harder, you’re driven to do more,” he says. 

Such as stop to help people in a burning bus when everybody else drives by. 

ADRENALINE RUSH 

When Hernandez arrived at the bus, it wasn’t the first time he’d found himself in a dangerous, possibly life-threatening, situation. 

As a senior in high school, he joined Explorers, a program that allows high school and college students interested in pursuing careers in criminal justice to work with law enforcement agencies. Every other week, Hernandez spent up to three hours with police officers, working in fingerprinting, providing security at public events and going on ride-alongs. 

“I tried to learn as much as I could. I asked a bunch of questions,” he says. “They noticed I had the motivation to learn. They taught me as much as they could. It was like I was a trainee. I learned a lot.” 

Because he was still a teenager, Hernandez witnessed more police work than he actually performed. And even then, what he
 saw was usually from inside the squad car, where officers made him stay if a situation seemed like it might get even remotely dicey. 

But one night, he got closer to the action than usual. He and the officers to whom he was assigned were looking for a man who had jumped parole. It was dark, and the group of officers plus Hernandez were on foot, literally beating the bushes in search of the man. Using a powerful flashlight to illuminate his surroundings, Hernandez spotted the man, hiding deep in a thicket of overgrown shrubs. 

The situation was precarious. The man had fled from police and was hiding; there had to be a reason for that, and it probably wasn’t a good one. Hernandez was an inexperienced 18-year-old, nowhere near ready to carry a weapon. The officers had always told him that in an emergency, he should run back to the squad car and grab the shotgun inside it. He briefly considered doing that but decided he didn’t have enough time. 

Hernandez was aware, though, that the guy hiding in the bushes didn’t know he was unarmed, and he had the presence of mind to take advantage of that. He pointed his flashlight in the man’s eyes. Summoning the deepest, most authoritative voice he could muster, he shouted, “Police! Hey, let me see your hands! Let me see your hands! Stop moving! Don’t make me use this! Let me see your hands! Let me see your hands right now!” 

Then came a voice from the bushes: “I give up! Don’t shoot! I give up!” 

At first, the officers didn’t know what Hernandez was shouting about. Later, they teased him, “Hey man, what kind of flashlight do you have? I want to get one of those.” 

By outside appearances, Hernandez kept cool and collected, but inside, he was on fire. “My adrenaline rush was spiking. I’d had nothing like that experience, ever, at that age,” he says. 

Years later, standing at the door of the burning bus, Hernandez says he remained calm, and he credits going through the situation with the man in the bushes for his ability to do so. The door still wouldn’t move. Hernandez tried to squeeze his fingers into the cracks between the door’s panels to pry it open. That didn’t work. “I had to come up with a game plan for another way to get them out,” he says. 

Memories from his childhood flooded back to him. He took many bus rides to Mexico as a boy, and he recalled seeing the drivers climb into the buses early in the morning. They opened the doors from the outside, he remembered, by using a latch. Sometimes, the latch was on the door itself, and sometimes it was just to the side of the door. Hernandez abandoned trying to wedge his fingers into the door and instead looked for that latch. “Lucky for me, it was right in front of me,” he says. He used it to pop open the door, and soon people started streaming out of the bus. Still, the danger was not over. 

“The smell was getting stronger, and the fire was getting bigger and bigger. About halfway through getting everybody out, I started seeing the flames coming from behind the bus,” he says. 

This dangerous situation (above) was threatening to turn catastrophic. Hernandez found a fire extinguisher just inside the door and directed the bus driver to douse the flames with it. Looking back, he’s not sure it did any good. As the passengers continued to push past Hernandez on their way out, he thought about the problems their location on the side of the highway would create. Fire, plus gasoline, plus a crowd of people was a recipe for disaster. 

He began directing the people out of harm’s way. “I told everybody, ‘Come out, come out, go stand by my car. Get off the bus, get off the bus,’ ” he says. 

MIND OVER MATTER 

Hernandez’s title at the jail where he works is custody assistant. That means he works in a variety of roles, depending on the day—everything from supervising inmates’ living quarters to checking on their welfare to making sure everyone gets fed. 

One day, he encountered a fight. He ran over as eight or nine prisoners beat up one other inmate. “Everything got quiet. I was so focused on that fight that I could not hear anything,” he says. “I could only identify two people—the victim and one of the suspects.” 

That wasn’t good, he says. 

Because as focused as he was, he still wasn’t getting the whole picture. He wasn’t aware of everything that was going on. 

The incident with the man in the bushes and the jail fight represent a progression for Hernandez in terms of dealing with stressful situations—an evolution of quick thinking and performance under pressure that culminated at the bus. In the first one, his adrenaline and heart rate shot sky-high. In the jail incident, with a few more years of law enforcement experience under his belt, plus his National Guard training, he took a step toward calm. But he still hadn’t been able to multi-task or see the big picture. 

Hernandez, who aspires to become an LA County deputy sheriff, garnered multiple accolades for saving the bus passengers. “No doubt in my mind, had he not done what he did, we would have had a real tragedy here,” said LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell.

In the years since, Hernandez says, “I’ve learned how to control myself. I’ve learned how to overcome that [tunnel vision].” 

And those abilities were crucial as Hernandez dealt with the chaos at the bus. 

Although it looked like all the passengers had escaped, Hernandez couldn’t be sure. It was a big bus, with row after row of seats, and it was full of smoke. He knew he had to make sure it was clear. 

He looked down at his clothes. Flip-flops, cargo shorts and a white shirt— not the uniform a man about to run into a burning bus would choose. 

He would’ve
 given anything
for his Guard
boots, flame-
retardant ACUs 
and eye protection. He paused,
 arguing with himself about what to do next. “I was scared of burning my feet,” he says. “But I’d rather burn my feet than find out later that somebody died.” 

I can’t keep debating this in my head, he thought. So he made a decision: “I took a deep breath, ran in, looked at every single seat, from the front to the back and from the back to the front,” he says. “It was full of smoke.” 

The bus was empty. When he got back outside, he ran to his car and called 911. Soon, he saw flashing lights from emergency vehicles approaching. Once the emergency personnel arrived on the scene, he briefed them. The news spread quickly, and in the next few days, everyone from Hernandez’s boss to old friends to LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell would hail him a hero. 

But at that critical moment on California 60, Hernandez wasn’t contemplating the future. Accolades were the furthest thing from his mind. All he knew was that he saw a problem and he needed to help. With firefighters putting out the flames and passengers safely waiting for backup transportation, Hernandez climbed back into his car and continued his long drive to work. And he made it there on time.