For Jose Torres Andujar, the military motto of ‘service before self’ continues even twenty years post discharge from the U.S. Army.
February 7, 2022, started off like any other Monday for Jose. He reported to work at the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center, completed his shift and went to visit his mother in-law.
While standing in the driveway about to depart for home, the unmistakable sound of a vehicular accident rang out through the neighborhood. The distressing sound of the crash instantly triggered Jose to follow his gut instinct and, without hesitation, he and his wife, Nora, jumped into their vehicle and began driving.
As they drove in the direction of the alarming noise, they both remained vigilant, seeking any signs of the crash. The visibility in the area was growing increasingly difficult as nighttime was approaching. Out of the corner of her eye, Nora spotted a figure in the distance resembling a man standing atop what appeared to be a mound. As they approached the figure, the image became clearer- A man was standing on top of a submerged vehicle in a nearby lake.
Hurriedly, Jose pulled his vehicle over, navigating through the debris of a demolished fence to align his vehicle as best he could to provide a source of light to the man on top of the vehicle. Looking on was the spouse of the man on the vehicle, James. James and his wife were driving and witnessed the vehicle fly through the fence and into the lake. They, too, had stopped to provide aid to the vehicle passengers.
Without hesitation, Jose grabbed a spare tire rod from his vehicle and ran down the embankment, jumping into the shivering cold lake. He made his way to the submerged vehicle, determined to rescue those trapped inside. With unsuccessful attempts to break the glass, they worked hand in hand to attempt to pry open the vehicle door. After several futile attempts, they were able to get the door cracked wide enough for Jose to slide his arm in.
With the water level rising, the weight of the door pushed against Jose’s arm, pinning him against the vehicle. He too was now trapped. Each second that passed, the vehicle sank deeper and deeper into the lake, dragging Jose down with it. James hastily worked to pry the door open again and after several attempts was able to get it open just enough to successfully release Jose’s arm.
Not ready to give up, the men went to the back of the vehicle and attempted to get the trunk unlatched. After the third try the trunk released. With the vehicle now completely submerged, James held the trunk open. With all the power of his lungs, Jose took one large breath, dove under the water and into the vehicle, placing his complete trust in James, a complete stranger up until moments before, now his brother in arms.
Thoughts raced through Jose’s head. “The reality when entering the trunk and looking into dark water was scary. With the amount of time passing from when I heard the crash to getting in the trunk, I didn’t know if I would be finding a dead body.”
With the sun completely set and the darkness of the night setting in, Jose used his hands as his eyes as he searched the back seats for signs of passengers. Unsuccessful, he came to the surface, took another breath, and dove back down.
As he made his way to the front of the vehicle, Jose touched the head of the driver. Suddenly a hand emerged and grabbed Jose. Jose clutched the driver and began to pull him towards the trunk. As Jose began to exit, he felt resistance; it was evident the driver was entangled. Jose gulped another breath of air and swam back in the vehicle struggling to release the driver from the entanglement. Suddenly, the driver became free, and Jose was able to bring him to the surface.
Jose’s instincts immediately kicked into overdrive. With James holding the driver, they started compressions. Pump after pump, Jose continued until the driver became alert and verified, he was the only person in the vehicle. As they exited the water; the sounds of sirens rang in the distance.
Jose didn’t pause to consider the what ifs of the situation and the possible dangers he could have encountered during the rescue effort. His response represented the sacrifice and selflessness so common among our nation’s Veterans. In Jose’s words, “I would like someone to do that in my situation or that of a family member. I believe if you pay it forward, someone will pay it forward to someone else.”
As a U.S. Army Veteran, an employee at the West Palm Beach VA Healthcare System, and a citizen, Jose truly exemplifies ‘service before self’.
As said best, Jose believes we can all, “Contribute to society and keep the area safe. You don’t have to get directly involved to make an impact. A little part in society goes a long way”.