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News > Rescue volunteer surmounted tough week to rescue plane crash victim
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Airman’s Medal recipient recognized for heroism
Air Force Staff Sgt. Jacob Gibson stands alongside Air Force Col. Brian Duffy, 673d Air Base Wing commander, and Rachel Zientek at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, along with others who were involved in a plane crash June 1, 2010. Gibson was awarded the Airman's Medal June 19, 2012 for selflessly rescuing Zientek from the wreckage of a burning plane. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Omari Bernard)
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Rescue volunteer surmounted tough week to rescue plane crash victim

Posted 6/22/2012   Updated 6/22/2012 Email story   Print story


by Airman 1st Class Omari Bernard
JBER Public Affairs

6/22/2012 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- The Talkeetna Theater was brim full as Airmen drifted in for the Commanders Call, a summons to hear a message from the base commander. Camera crews and news anchors floated around two distinct figures outside. An Airman in full service dress, his uniform deep blue, stood firm against the wave of media as he allows them to attach microphones to his uniform. Anchored next to him, a woman, with her hands held in her lap, answered questions directed towards her by reporters.

Rachel Zientek reported the tale of how she was rescued and the courage and heroism shown that day by the Airman next to her - how Staff Sgt. Jacob W. Gibson earned his Airman's Medal, the U.S. Air Force's highest award for extraordinary heroism not involving combat.

Before the award ceremony, at the beginning of the meeting, Gibson and Zientek were interviewed by local media.

"Two years ago, you were saving Rachel's life," a media representative said. "How does it feel to be standing here receiving an award today?" They asked.

"It feels surreal," answered Gibson. "I try not to think of the award and so much as how I got it."

Gibson, a native of the small city of Waller, Texas, described losing someone before rescuing Zientek.

"Four days prior to that, I was down in Girdwood, coming back from a combat fishing tournament," recalled Gibson. "A girl had come running, screaming out of the bakery, and soon after another followed screaming for a doctor."

When he approached the girl she asked whether he was a doctor, to which he replied, no. He inquired, "What's going on?"

One of cooks in the back was having a heart attack, said the girl. "Is anyone doing CPR?" Gibson, who was certified in CPR, asked. She replied with a blank stare.

"I went to the back and started doing chest compressions," Gibson said. "A cop came with an EKG and started performing mouth to mouth."

Soon after the officer arrived, paramedics and life-flight arrived. After 45 minutes of chest compressions the paramedics who were in contact with a doctor declared the cook dead. The death of the cook weighed upon him, Gibson said.

"I went in to work the very next day," Gibson told his co-workers. "I lost a guy, with my own hands, I couldn't bring him back; it was going to be a rough day."

Two days later, he spoke with the chaplain about the incident.

"No matter what it is, don't be afraid to ask for help," Gibson advised. "It's not about being proud, stubborn, and humble. Just ask for help."

The very next day, a plane that took off from Merrill Field went crashed into the side of a Fairview building, injuring four people and killing one, according to a news release.
"I was leaving the base trying to beat traffic," Gibson said.

The day the plane crashed, a police officer in the opposite lane had turned on his lights and had begun to sail through the sea of traffic when Gibson observed people pointing in the direction of a spiraling column of smoke. When he saw the black clouds, he immediately pulled in behind a gas station, not knowing what had happened, he proceeded to the scene.

"When I came around the corner and saw the aircraft, I saw people holding up the wing," Gibson said. "I didn't see anyone actively pulling anyone out of the aircraft, so I freaked out and sprinted towards the cockpit."

That's when he saw Zientek. He pulled her from wreckage and into the arms of an Anchorage police officer. He then returned to the aircraft to aid in the rescue of the next passenger.

"We would not have been able to do what we did if there weren't people holding up that wing," Gibson said.

"He's the type that would do anything for anyone," said Jessi Gibson, Sergeant Gibson's wife. "Saving Rachel's life is what brought him back, not only to himself but also to me."
When Gibson, Zientek, and Air Force Col. Brian Duffy, commander of JBER and 673d Air Base Wing entered, the theater stood at attention as they took to the center of the stage. An announcer read the citation of the act of valor that earned Gibson the award. Duffy presented and pinned the Airmen's Medal on Gibson's chest.

They shook hands, saluted and simultaneously turned toward the crowded theater. A roar of applause erupted and Gibson blushed as Duffy motioned for Rachel Zientek's family and Jessi Gibson to take the stage and receive a round of applause before they departed the theater. Duffy waved at Rachel Zientek's family and Jessi Gibson to take the stage and receive a round of applause before they departed the theater.

Jacob Gibson exited the theater and answered more questions from the incoming tide of local media. There, he was surprised by a personal gift from Rachel Zientek's mother, Tammy Zientek.

"This is a copy of Rachel's Bible that survived the plane crash," Tammy Zientek said. She thanked him for saving her daughter and embraced him as he accepted the memento.
"What's more important to you today, is it this award or is it the relationships you have gained?" A media representative asked Gibson.

He replied without hesitation, "We're taking her out, showing her Alaska. This is the good stuff, not the bad stuff that happened. It's a life experience you can look forward to."

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