By Stanley Dambroski, Diplomatic Security Public Affairs
AP Photo/May 25, 2008/Brussels, Belgium
Firefighters stand next to the U.S.-based Kalitta Air cargo plane that split in two after crashing at the end of the runway in Zaventem near Brussels, May 25, 2008. Diplomatic Courier Tomas "Andy" Perez was honored for his heroism in securing classified U.S. diplomatic pouches and assisting the crew in the immediate aftermath of the crash. © AP Photo
On May 25, 2008, Tomas “Andy” Perez encountered extraordinary danger. He was on an official mission when the plane he was on, taking off from Brussels, left the runway and plunged into a field. Perez’s response to this crisis earned him the Department of State’s Award for Heroism.
As a Diplomatic Courier, Perez routinely accompanies classified diplomatic pouches in support of the U.S. Department of State’s mission, ensuring that equipment and materials arrive securely at diplomatic posts. However, on May 25, 2008, the job was anything but routine.
That morning Perez was strapped into the jump seat of a Kalitta 747-200 cargo aircraft, traveling with a four-member crew from Brussels. As the aircraft began takeoff, Perez and the crew heard a loud noise. The pilot aborted liftoff and tried to stop the aircraft, but, as the landing gear failed, the airplane skipped the runway and plunged into a field. The crash caused the fuselage to break apart. The aircraft’s nose section, which included the cockpit holding Perez and the four crew members, broke off from the rest of the plane and dropped to the ground, stopping just 26 feet from high power lines and railroad tracks.
Despite sustaining injuries, Perez jumped into action to help the others on board. In the chaos, the air filling with the smell of jet fuel, and two of the escape hatches damaged by the crash and rendered unusable, Perez was able to locate a working hatch, open it, and lead the crew to safety. However, the group then faced a steep, dangerous descent, and the crew was understandably hesitant to jump from the plane. Perez again led the way, demonstrating how to use the escape slide to slow their steep descent and land safely.
Once the crew was safely on the ground, Perez attended to the injured and quickly alerted authorities at the Department about the accident and his need for support. Never forgetting his duty as a Diplomatic Courier, Perez refused to leave the site for medical treatment so that he could maintain surveillance of the diplomatic pouches—enough material to fill an 18-wheeler truck. Crews from U.S. Embassies around the world flew in to take shifts guarding the cargo continuously for eight days while HAZMAT personnel cleared the leaking jet fuel and investigators combed the crash site.
For his valor under life-threatening conditions, Perez was presented with the Department of State’s Award for Heroism. In a ceremony on February 17, 2009 at the U.S. Department of State’s Annex in Rosslyn, Virginia, Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security Eric J. Boswell presented Perez with a medal set and a certificate signed by the Secretary.
Deborah Glass, Director of the Office of Diplomatic Courier Service, attended the ceremony as well as Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) for Countermeasures Patrick Donovan. DAS Donovan remarked on the difficult and dangerous work of the Diplomatic Couriers, stating they work “below the radar” and are “the unsung heroes” of diplomatic work.
Presenting the award, Ambassador Boswell said, “People use the word ‘hero’ frequently and loosely these days…. Today, we are here to recognize a 100-percent real, true ‘hero’ as we present Andy Perez with the Department of State’s Award for Heroism.”
Perez became a Diplomatic Courier in 2005 and worked in the Washington, D.C. office. He began working in the Frankfurt Regional Diplomatic Courier Division in September 2008. The presentation of the Award for Heroism is not the first time the U.S. Department of State has honored Perez. In 2007, he received the Meritorious Honor Award for outstanding efforts in office modernization and dedication to the mission of the U.S. Diplomatic Courier Service. Prior to coming to State, Perez served in the United States Army for eight years; he was a Russian linguist, and he received two Army Achievement medals.
After the award ceremony, Perez reflected about his actions and his fellow Diplomatic Couriers:
“I trust that every Courier would have reacted in the same way after the crash, given the same circumstances. On every mission, the Courier is confronted with potentially hazardous situations. Some trips entail long hours marked by fatigue, resistant airport personnel, inclement weather, and other challenging situations. Despite these challenges, Diplomatic Couriers get the job done, ensuring the security of classified material which is vital to the success of American foreign policy. It is an honor and a privilege to serve with the Diplomatic Couriers.”
Presentation of Department of States Award for Heroism. From left, Diplomatic Courier Service Director Deborah Glass Diplomatic Courier Andy Perez Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security Eric J. Boswell Deputy Assistant Secretary for Countermeasures Patrick D. Donovan. State Dept Photo