To Serve and Protect

Daniel Hernandez doesn't see himself as a hero. The people of Tucson, Arizona, and the nation, beg to differ.

By Gary Sledge from Reader's Digest | December 2011 / January 2012

Daniel HernandezPhotographed by Tamara ReynoldsHernandez says the real heroes are the doctors, paramedics, and public servants.
Daniel Hernandez always knew he wanted to help people. Before he’d even graduated high school, he trained to be a certified nursing assistant and volunteered at a nursing home. A big kid with a gentle, efficient manner, he learned to use needles to draw blood, to lift patients in his strong arms, and to respond swiftly and calmly to emergencies.

He never quite got around to taking the exam to become fully certified, though, because by then he’d decided he wanted to work in public service. He felt inspired by the good that responsible lawmakers can do, so in his junior year at the University of Arizona, he declared a major in political science and began volunteering in political campaigns. One of his heroes was his local congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords. He’d met Giffords while he was working on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and thought Giffords was not just a trailblazer but “the kindest, warmest human being you will ever meet in your entire life.”

He was elated when he was picked for an internship with her, and he gladly gave up a part-time sales job for the chance to work on her team. So eager was he that he started work four days early. On Saturday morning, January 8, he arrived at La Toscana Village mall north of Tucson and began setting up tables in front of a Safeway store where 30 or so people were gathering to meet Giffords. It was Hernandez’s job to sign people in and guide them into a queue so each could get a photo taken with the congresswoman between an American and an Arizona State flag.

At 10:10 a.m., Hernandez heard loud popping sounds. “Gun!” someone yelled. He heard people screaming, saw them falling to the ground. Hernandez was standing 30 feet away from Giffords when she collapsed. In seconds, he was at her side. “When I heard gunfire, I figured there was danger to the congresswoman,” he recalls. “I started toward her.”

Everywhere around him was chaos, but Hernandez willed himself to remain calm. “I tried to tune everything out and keep an intense focus. I didn’t want to let my emotions become part of the problem.”

Giffords was lying on the sidewalk; blood was streaming down her face from a bullet wound to her head. Gently, Hernandez lifted her into a sitting position against his shoulder so she wouldn’t choke on her blood. Then, with his bare hand, he applied pressure to the wound on her forehead to staunch the flow of blood. She was conscious; he calmed her and told her all would be well.

Minutes later, ambulances and paramedics arrived on the scene. Still Hernandez stayed with Giffords, holding her hand and talking. “I just made sure she knew she wasn’t alone,” he says. “When I told her I’d contact [her husband] Mark, she squeezed my hand hard.”

Nineteen people fell victim to a deranged man with a deadly weapon that day. Six died. Giffords, though gravely wounded, survived — in no small part because of Hernandez’s quick and selfless actions. Says surgeon Peter Rhee, chief of trauma at University Medical Center in Tucson, where Giffords was taken, Hernandez “was quick to act — he did a heroic thing.”

Hernandez never talks about those horrible minutes in a Tucson parking lot without mentioning the people he sees as the real miracle workers: the paramedics and doctors and the public servants who spend their lives helping others — and sometimes give their lives that way. He doesn’t see himself as a hero. The people of Tucson and the nation beg to differ. They’re grateful Daniel Hernandez felt driven to be of service — felt called so strongly, in fact, that he was there at that fateful moment, four days earlier than he was supposed to be. He puts it simply. “Sometimes,” he says, “I wonder if there was a reason for me to be there.”

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