Washington, D.C. – January 6, 2015 – (RealEstateRama) — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) San Juan Special Agent Jeremiah Gonzalez passes the Universal Insurance Company building in Caguas, Puerto Rico every day.
Whether driving to the HSI San Juan field office or taking an evening run from his home nearby, Gonzalez knows the building and the surrounding area very well.
This is why on Dec. 8, when Gonzalez was driving past the building on his usual commute home, a nearby brush fire caught his eye.
“As I hit the traffic light, I’m looking and I see flames almost as high as the second story of the building,” Gonzalez said. “I looked and I saw there was nobody around. No firefighters, no police.”
Because of Gonzalez’s familiarity with the layout, he knew that there was a natural gas tank adjacent to the building. When he stopped at the traffic light, the flames were approximately 20 yards away from the tank. Gonzalez knew it was only a matter of time until the brush fire spread and endangered those who were inside.
“I immediately turned around, went inside to the security guard and asked, ‘Has anyone called the fire department?’” Gonzalez recalled. “He said ‘No, why?’ and I told him to look outside.”
Gonzalez then shut down the lines that carried natural gas from the fuel tank to the area where the brush fire was growing to eliminate the risk of a dangerous explosion. Then, Gonzalez and the security guard canvased all three floors, urging people, many of whom were still unaware of the potential danger, to exit the building as soon as possible.
It was when Gonzalez was climbing the steps of the building and saw the flames outside that reality set in.
“Once I went in there, I realized what I’d gotten myself into,” Gonzalez said. “When we were getting people out and they started panicking, I started to panic too.”
Nonetheless, due to Gonzalez’s quick reaction to the observed threat, he was able to go in, alert the security guards, shut off the gas, and evacuate the 29 people who were in the building in approximately 15 minutes.
The training Gonzalez has received as a member of the HSI San Juan Special Response Team and throughout his five years with ICE kicked in immediately. He knew the proper evacuation procedures, how far onlookers had to be from the area once the building was cleared, and how to effectively block traffic.
“You don’t realize you have a good tool [to use] until it’s time to use it,” Gonzalez said. “All of the training just came back to me and I was able to put it into context.”
As the local authorities arrived and took control of scene, many of the occupants of the building approached Gonzalez to personally thank him for his efforts.
Gonzalez eventually made his way home that evening, where he changed out of his smoke-filled clothes and explained to his wife why he was late. As he reflected on the ordeal, he knew that driving past the Universal Insurance Company building every day would never be the same.
However, the decision to stop and help is one he’d make again if he had to.
“The mentality here at HSI San Juan is that we are going to make things happen and get things done no matter what,” Gonzalez said. “When I saw the fire and saw that nobody was there, I knew that I had to do something.”
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