Right Place, Right Time: Pituffik Airman Saves Life

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Danielle Rose

It was the evening of May 4 that would turn U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. William Gonzalez of the 821st Support Squadron into a local hero after saving a woman from her submerged vehicle off interstate 587 in North Carolina.  

While returning home after picking his mother up from the airport, Gonzalez noticed a car ahead of him drifting to the side of the highway while traveling at a high rate of speed.

“I saw a car, from what I had thought at the moment, exit the highway rather quickly,” Gonzalez said. “I even pointed it out to my mom sitting in the passenger seat and said, ‘that’s pretty fast for an exit.’ Not even a couple seconds later, I realized it wasn’t an exit and that the vehicle had swerved off the highway.”

Gonzalez was initially unsure where the car went, but then saw the vehicle sinking below water and immediately slammed the brakes and pulled over onto the side of the road. He instructed his mother to call 9-1-1 and, without hesitation, jumped into the water.

“From my mom’s recollection, by the time she had gotten out of the truck and into direct line of sight to where the vehicle had entered the water, I had already run down the hill, hopped over a wire fence, threw a button-down shirt I was wearing on the ground and entered the water,” Gonzalez said.

A second witness at the scene, Ann Letchworth, who was with her husband driving directly behind the vehicle moments before it drove off the road explains that Gonzalez reacted so quickly, she thought he was a passenger of the submerged vehicle.

“My husband and I had just called 9-1-1 when we noticed two people in the water—a woman and a man… we did not even see the man enter the water from the road because he was so fast, so we thought he was a passenger of the submerged car,” Letchworth said.

While in the water, Letchworth explains that Gonzalez tried pulling the submerged car closer to shore while also trying to instruct the individual stuck in the car how to get out.

“Gonzalez was not able to open up any of the car doors because of the pressure from the water… we could see a woman beginning to climb out of the top of the car and we watched as he tried to push the vehicle closer to shore."

Moments later Gonzalez returned safely to shore with the submerged vehicle’s only occupant—Elizabeth Gray Edwards of Greenville, North Carolina.  

Edwards said that by the time she made it out of the vehicle and onto the grass, Gonzalez ensured she had everything she needed while first responders were on their way, to include water and a towel.  

“From the time I was halfway underwater to the time we made it onto the grass, Gonzalez was there until first responders arrived,” Edwards said. “I stayed in the hospital for four days and once I was cleared to leave, Gonzalez had already gone back to his duty station in Greenland—he truly was my angel that night.”

Due to Edwards experiencing a medical condition while she was driving, she lost control of her vehicle. Edwards’ mother, Mary Lou Woolard is certain that without Gonzalez, her daughter would have drowned.

“[Elizabeth] had passed out so she wouldn’t have woken up in time to get out of her car,” Woolard said. “If it weren’t for Gonzalez, I am certain that my daughter would not be here today. He made a conscious decision to put himself at risk and only think about my daughter’s safety. He is a hero not just for his service but for this heroic act.”

Gonzalez credits the Air Force core values and his nine years of active-duty experience for how he was able to quickly think and act to the situation.

“My military training helped me in my response to the accident,” Gonzalez said. Since day one of basic military training, it’s been go, go, go. My ability to rapidly assess a situation and formulate some type of response has significantly increased.  The Air Force core values have been drilled into my brain since day one as well—specifically service before self. I didn’t think, I just acted.”  

The brave act that Gonzalez displayed that night not only affected Edwards’ life, but also the life of her family.

“Our family is beyond thankful,” Edwards said. “There are no words or acts that will show just how much we appreciate Gonzalez and what he did for my family.”

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. David Schoenhardt, 821st Support Squadron commander, explains that acts such as Gonzalez’s exemplify the standards of the U.S. Air and Space Force to the highest extent.

“Tech Sgt. Gonzalez is an outstanding member of our squadron, and we are immensely proud of him… his humility, character and conduct throughout the incident and since is indicative of the Airmen that make up the 821st Support Squadron and the U.S. Air Force.”

Edwards has since arrived home safely to her husband, Gary Williams and their four children, 23-year-old Ryan Williams, 17-year-old Austin Williams, 14-year-old Savannah Edwards and 12-year-old Lilly Edwards. The family looks forward to meeting with Gonzalez once he arrives home to North Carolina from Greenland.