Staff Sgt. Greggory Swarz wasn’t close enough to see the Greek F-16 crash at Los Llanos Air Base in Spain, Jan. 26, 2015, but as soon as he heard the explosion, he hurried to the scene to see how he could help.
"It's human nature, there's people suffering, you've got to do as much as you can," Swarz, an electrical systems specialist with the 492nd Aircraft Maintenance Unit, told Agence France-Presse.
Immediately after the F-16 crashed into other parked aircraft during a NATO training exercise, a massive explosion and fireball killed the two Greek pilots and nine French personnel, injuring 20 more nearby. Swarz moved closer to the inferno, looking for someone to help and exposing himself to a terrible sight.
"I saw some stuff that shouldn't really be talked about,” he told AFP. “Some pretty horrific things."
But then he saw something he had hoped to see: three French airmen alive in the fire who needed help. Swarz ran into the flames to retrieve them one by one, willfully burning his hands as he patted out the flames engulfing the clothes of the first victim he rescued, according to the Air Force’s 48th Fighter Wing. He then pulled another victim to safety, whose wife later sent Swarz regular updates of her husband’s recovery in the hospital throughout the winter.
But Swarz stumbled on his way to reach the third man still trapped in the fire. Two other airmen answered his call for help, assisting him to drag the last victim out of harm’s way. That victim had lost a hand. Staying calm and rational throughout the ordeal, Swarz saved his life by using his belt as a tourniquet to stem the blood loss.
"It was horrible. I couldn't breathe because of the heat and the smoke," Swarz told AFP.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian presented Swarz with the Legion’ d’Honneur medal, France’s highest military award, on June 15 during the International Paris Air Show.
The defence minister also awarded four other U.S. airmen with France’s National Medal of Defense for helping other French servicemembers.
One of those airmen, Master Sgt. Jonathan McNeely, took note of Swarz’s heroics during the chaotic aftermath of the crash. "As I got closer, I could see Staff Sgt. Swarz,” he told Air Force Times. “He was already in the flames, dragging people out. Other people were assisting him already, picking people up. All around wreckage and debris and there were little — I don't know how better to describe it — little fireballs, like little objects on fire all around them."
“Honestly, I was thinking that there was a good chance that I might pass away as well,” Swarz told the 48th Fighter Wing. “I was just trying to get as many people out before that might happen.”
All five airmen, along with a sixth, also received Crosses of Aeronautical Merit on June 18 from the Spanish government.
Swarz also received the Airman's Medal, the branch's highest non-combat valor award, for his bravery. Doug Sterner, Military Times Hall of Valor curator and a renowned expert on military awards, told Air Force Times that the Airman's Medal is one of the rarest awards given by the military.
UPDATE: This article was updated to include mention of Swarz' award of the Airman's Medal (6/25/2015; 6:50 am).