WASHINGTON - He says he was just doing his job, but a 22-year-old Minneapolis youth worker will be honored today with one of the nation's highest civilian awards for his actions on Aug. 1, 2007 -- the day the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed.
At a ceremony in the shadow of the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington, Va., Jeremy Hernandez will be recognized for saving the lives of more than 50 school children in a bus that went down in the wreckage of the bridge.
Hernandez, saving money to study auto mechanics, still works among some of the same kids and their families at Waite House in south Minneapolis, where the ill-fated bus was headed during the crash.
"Anybody else would have done the same thing," he said by phone from the Waite House gym, where a boisterous group of kids was playing and raising a ruckus. "You can't turn your back on the kids."
Hernandez and two other citizen-heroes, from Missouri and New Jersey, were chosen for the 2009 Above & Beyond Citizen Honors, awarded by the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. One of last year's winners was Matthew Miller, a Twin Cities construction worker who helped pull a half-dozen dazed motorists from the tangled beams and concrete of the 35W bridge.
The foundation, which represents the fewer than 100 living recipients of the Medal of Honor, a military award, seeks to recognize ordinary civilians from around the nation who show extraordinary courage or selflessness. Organizers of today's event said there was a strong possibility President Obama would attend.
Returning from field trip
Hernandez and Miller were among the many Minnesotans who responded heroically when the bridge collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring more than 100.
Like Miller, Hernandez said he was simply doing his job when the disaster struck. He was on a school bus with 52 children returning from a swimming field trip at the Bunker Beach Water Park in Coon Rapids. Unlike Miller, Hernandez was on top of the bridge -- in the bus -- when it went down. In an instant, he became one of the victims.
"It still feels like a dream," Hernandez said.
The surreal experience of riding a large slab of the bridge upright into the Mississippi River gorge ended in a disbelieving moment of dark silence. The bus, a few feet from the water and a burning semitrailer truck, was enveloped in a massive cloud of dust.
"At first it was quiet, and then there was some moaning and cries," Hernandez recalls.
But he couldn't see the kids.
As his mind and his vision cleared -- and the fear arose that the bus might still slip into the water -- Hernandez jumped over the seats and kicked open the back emergency door. One by one, he handed the children to other survivors on the slab of angled road surface where the bus had come to a rest.
Hernandez was the last one off.
"He wouldn't have left anyone on that bus," said Julie Graves, a youth program manager at Waite House who was injured and lifted out of the bus by Hernandez.
Among those who also came to the children's rescue was Gary Babineau, whose pick-up truck had fallen nearby.
Aerial photos of the yellow school bus, perched precariously on the crumpled surface of the bridge, would serve as a vivid illustration of how much worse the 35W tragedy might have been.
Of the 61 people on the bus -- 50 mostly elementary-age students, eight staff members, the driver and her two children -- 14 were taken to local hospitals, including Graves and the driver, Kimberly Dahl, who crunched two vertebrae in her lower back. Hernandez suffered cuts and a lower back injury.
'A lot of heroes that day'
Officials at the Pillsbury United Communities, which runs Waite House and other community centers, have praised the work of all staff members on the bus.
The First Student bus company gave plaques and $5,000 checks to Hernandez, Dahl, Babineau, and Graves, who suffered broken vertebrae in the crash.
Another apparent hero was Taystee truck driver Paul Eickstadt, who died in a fiery crash beside the bus. According to Graves and others on the bus, Eickstadt appeared to veer to give the bus room as the bridge went down.
"There were a lot of heroes that day," she said.
For Hernandez, who has already been recognized by Minneapolis city officials and other organizations, it was never about being a hero.
"I was just thinking it's my job," he said. "I have a duty to make sure everybody gets home."
Hernandez has been working as a youth counselor to raise money to study auto mechanics at Dunwoody College of Technology. He had dropped out of Dunwoody before the accident due to lack of money.
After his actions drew national attention, the school offered to help him return, which he plans to do later this year.
Hernandez, still a reluctant hero, said he's "trying to move on with my life."
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753