Master Sgt. Jonathan McNeely was working as a safety observer stationed at Los Llanos airbase in Spain when the Greek F-16 crashed into a parking ramp on the runway, he told Air Force Times in an interview.
It was on Jan. 26, during a NATO training exercise, when the F-16 slammed into planes being fueled and readied to fly, creating a massive explosion. The two Greek pilots and nine French service members on the ground were killed.
McNeely called for fire and medical support and headed toward the inferno. What he didn't know was that the fire was so large that emergency vehicles needed to take a lengthy detour to get there.
He and the other service members fighting the fire were on their own.
The French government recently honored McNeely, Staff Sgt. Greggory Swarz, and three other airmen for their bravery that day. They also received military decorations from the Spanish government, along with a sixth airman.
After the Greek F-16 crashed, the scene on the ground was horrific, McNeely recalled.
"I could see other people on fire and that kind of thing," he said. "Some of it is graphic — more graphic than I want to talk about."
Senior Airman Matthew Jeffers passed McNeely in full sprint. "I yelled for him to stop out of concern for his safety," McNeely said. "He just turned around and — just the expression on his face and had his arms open — just seeing his willingness to try to help others, I just motioned for him to go on," McNeely said.
McNeely grabbed a large fire extinguisher on wheels and started dragging it to the blaze.
"As I got closer, I could see Staff Sgt. Swarz," McNeely said. "He was already in the flames, dragging people out. Other people were assisting him already, picking people up. All around [was] 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."
McNeely gave the fire extinguisher to a French service member who sprayed people whose clothes were on fire, he said. Then he ran into the debris field to help a badly burned man to the makeshift rally point about 100 feet away.
By this time, the fire was getting more intense and causing more explosions, so McNeely helped load the wounded into a van. Staff Sgt. Eli Gordon drove them to an emergency room in town.
With the seriously wounded taken care of, McNeely turned his attention to those with less severe injuries, including Swarz.
"He had literally burned his hands trying to rescue other people — drag them to safety," McNeely said. "But I saw we had other minor injuries that needed medical attention."
McNeely also decided it was time for the remaining Greek, French, Italian and U.S. service members to leave the area because it was too dangerous.
"Things were continuing to explode — ejection seats," he said. "Planes were literally on fire still and I was afraid that a projectile or a fragmentation might come our way and hurt someone."
On June 15, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian presented military decorations to Swarz, McNeely, Jeffers, Gordon and Staff Sgt. John Escalante.
The five airmen were singled out for their heroism by a French commission that looked into the incident, said Maj. Michael Andrews, a spokesman for U.S. Air Forces in Europe.
Swarz received the Legion of Honor, France's highest military award. The other airmen received the National Medal of Defense.
"Let me particularly salute [Staff] Sgt. Greggory Swarz' extraordinary bravery," Le Drian said before presenting the awards. "He did not hesitate to throw himself into the furnace to rescue his fellow aviators." Swarz, of the 492nd Aircraft Maintenance Unit, received the Legion of Honor, France's highest military ward on June 15 for saving three French service members from the fiery crash.
Throughout the entire disaster, the U.S. airmen worked as a team to grab people from the flames, McNeely said.
"No one was trying to be a hero," he said. "Everybody was doing what they thought needed to be done to try to help who we could."