Diving in the face of danger; That's what we do

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Elizabeth Gilbert
  • 136th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
In the face of danger most people will steer clear of trouble, but for Tech. Sgt. Lawrence Thibeault, a cyberspace operator assigned to the 221st Combat Communications Squadron, 254th Combat Communications Group, Texas Air Natioanl Guard, at Hensley Field Air Guard Station, helping others in trouble is second nature.

Thibeault was recently selected as the Air National Guard nominee for the 2014 Noncommissioned Officers Association Vanguard Award for his heroism during the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion on April 17, 2013. He provided lifesaving aid for five elderly residents of the West Rest Haven Nursing Home and coordinated their evacuation for follow-on medical care.

"I was driving from Austin (my home town for the past decade), on my way to drill that Friday night when I felt a strong force push my car and I heard a loud clap," said Thibeault, "I pulled over and saw a mushroom cloud to the east of me."

As a traditional Guardsman, Thibeault comes to his Unit Training Assembly once a month by way of I-35 north, which passes through West, Texas. That evening he was unaware that for the next three hours his courage and training would be tested. The moment he saw the mushroom cloud all he could think of was a domestic-terrorist attack. He immediately got back in his car and raced towards the location of the smoke cloud now floating above the town of West, Texas.

As he approached the scene of the disaster, he came across a building that had extensive structural damage. There were several bystanders and victims gathered outside the damaged building. He parked his car and ran inside.

"I knew somebody was hurt," said Thibeualt. "I went directly to the explosion site and ran inside the collapsed building. I didn't realize it was a nursing home until I went inside."

Once inside, he assessed the situation and offered his help to rescue the stranded residents. Thibeault then located a five-person evacuation team and proceeded further into the wreckage looking for non-ambulatory survivors. He discovered an elderly woman trapped by debris, but there was no clear path of evacuation from his present location. He sought an alternate route and began to clear the debris towards the pinned woman.

"I needed to get her out," said Thibeault. "But once I got to her I could see that she was hurt."

He performed self-aid and buddy-care, a training ingrained in every Airman. He assessed her injuries to the wrist and shin; nothing that would preclude her from being moved. With the help of another volunteer he lifted the patient out of her bed and onto a wheelchair. The woman was taken to safety and he continued to look for more residents to assist. He rescued five more residents to include a woman trapped by debris with her six-year-old granddaughter and brought them to safety.

"The girl was scared and frantic," said Thibeault. "I told her the most important thing she could do for everyone was to smile. She did. This memory is forever ingrained in my mind (her smile)."

By now the smell of gas was evident and all Thibeault could think of was getting the residents out of the building as quick as possible before a second explosion occured. While evacuating the woman and her granddaughter, he discovered another elderly victim pinned in her hospital bed, incapable of walking. With the help of other rescuers, he cleared the medical appliances attached to the woman and lifted her onto a wheel chair and took her to safety. He continued his efforts until the smell of gas intensified and a greater risk of another explosion was highly probable. He evacuated and proceeded to the make-shift helipad.

Once at the helipad, Thibeault assisted in the extraction of the life-threatening patients. He helped medical and civilian personnel assess and render aid to the victims of the nursing home. The rest of the victims taken to the West, football stadium, the staging area for injured victims who were not in a life or death situation. He stayed until the first responders finally arrived and they no longer needed his service.

"I was overwhelmed with emotion once I realized what had happened. I didn't know it was the fertilizer plant that exploded until after the dust settled," said Thibeault. "I would have done it again. That's what we do."