Designated Driver: Airman saves lives

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Rito Smith
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs

It was a normal Thursday night when Nick Cervantes drove to Okaloosa Island to pick up a friend he had met on temporary duty. She invited him out to a bar with her other friends. Initially Cervantes was skeptical about going out since he had work in the morning, but he eventually agreed to be their designated driver.

All was going well as they drove down U.S. Highway 98 when suddenly Cervantes saw what looked like a flash of light in his rearview mirror. His car jerked forward. He attempted to slow down and realized his vehicle was speeding up. Quickly he decided to pull over to the right shoulder, but again his vehicle was not responding correctly. The vehicle began turning left and eventually began rolling over before being flung into oncoming traffic and hit by another car. He had been hit from behind causing a major accident.

Instincts kicked in and Cervantes began searching for two of his passengers who had been ejected during the accident.

After he ensured the safety of his ejected passengers, with the help of other good Samaritans, he stopped traffic and noticed that a car was on fire with passengers inside. A group of people rushed to the vehicle and began trying to break the windows in order to pull people out. They wouldn’t budge. Finally, another person was able to break the back window and start to pull an individual out. Cervantes helped carry the injured person roughly 20 feet to the east before running back to search for more people.

At this point flames were shooting out of the window and threatening to engulf the vehicle completely. Without regard for his own safety, Cervantes reached into the vehicle and shouted, “Give me your arms!” but he saw no arms. After a short while, with his arms still inside of the flaming vehicle, he felt a pair of legs. He pulled as hard as he could and eventually was able to drag another person to safety.

Again, he went back and yelled for the last person to give him something to grab onto. There was no response. Eventually the first responders arrived and were able to pull the final person from the burning vehicle. Everyone had been rushed to the hospital including Cervantes.

Despite Cervantes’ efforts, the third individual did not survive the burns.

“I remember the smell, it was the stuff of nightmares,” said Cervantes as he recalled the series of events. “We were taken to the same hospital and I can remember hearing the first responders say it didn’t look good for the third guy.”

The next morning Cervantes did not go into work. He said he had been in a car accident but neglected to mention the extent of it.

He eventually returned to work and thought he could forget everything.

“I didn’t realize just how much it had affected me until I was having flashbacks at work,” said Cervantes. “My supervisor noticed I was acting strange and started a conversation with me. I remember dismissing his concerns but he kept pushing.”

His mentors pushing deeper and deeper past the walls he raised allowed him to open up and start to deal with the traumatic events. They also pushed for him to be recognized with an Airman’s Medal, the highest award given for non-combat events.

“I didn’t feel like I deserved the recognition that I was getting,” said Cervantes. “There are people at this base that do this kind of thing every day. I didn’t feel like I was a hero. I felt like I could’ve done more to save the third guy.”

Cervantes recalled feeling thankful for the opportunity to be recognized but not feeling like it was completely earned. He met with another mentor who sat down with him and helped him realize that he was not alone in his feelings and that he could get help.

After some time, his perspective had shifted. “I remember praying and saying ‘God I don’t care about this award… No. I care about this award. I am thankful for the opportunity.’ But what’s more important is pushing out the resources that I was able to use to get help.”

Cervantes has made it his mission since the accident to share his experiences with helping agencies to all individuals above and below himself.

“If I can help just one person it will be worth it,” said Cervantes.

The day became known by Cervantes as “Operation Thursday,” the day Cervantes had to put all of the values previously instilled within to the test.


He originally joined the Air Force at the age of 19 from Sierra Vista, Arizona after his father lost his job during the recession. He had planned on attending college and looking forward to an aircrew commission, but decided not to take out student loans and instead enlisted.

Eager to get started he signed an open mechanical contract and was soon offered a job as a civil engineer. This started his career as part of the 1st Special Operations Wing where he was quickly indoctrinated with the values of a quiet professional.