Over the past week, Tucson has added a group of folk heroes to the city's story. There are the two loving husbands who threw themselves in front of their wives in an attempt to shield them from Jared Lee Loughner's bullets, one of whom lost his life and one of whom still lost his spouse. There is the 61-year-old woman who ran into the fray to wrestle away Loughner's second magazine clip. There are the trio of men who wrestled the shooter down. And there is the young intern, Daniel Hernandez Jr., who was the first in a string of people credited with saving Representative Gabrielle Giffords' life.
Hernandez, a University of Arizona student who started his internship with Giffords the Monday before the shooting, is, at 20, a political veteran. He volunteered for Hillary Clinton's campaign, and as a volunteer helped Giffords get re-elected in 2008. After working for Clinton, Hernandez tells TIME, "I tried to find someone else who I could admire and help them get elected. Gabby immediately stood out." (While officially an intern fresh on the job in her office, Hernandez had been friendly with Giffords for years. The profile picture on his Facebook page shows him arm in arm with the Congresswoman on her birthday in 2008, standing in front of a cake his mother made.) He has also served as a campaign manager for a state representative and teaches young people how to run effective races. But the skill that may have counted most on Jan. 8 was the first aid he learned as part of a certified nurses' assisting program.
Hernandez arrived at the "Congress on Your Corner" event around 10 a.m. While signing people in to speak with the Congresswoman, he heard Loughner's first shots. "I immediately knew that if there was a target, she would likely be it," he says. "I tuned everything out and started going into critical-thinking mode, which was that you need to get whoever's still alive some help until EMTs arrive."
After checking two or three people for pulses on his way to Giffords, Hernandez, a large man, ran to the Congresswoman, who was slumped over and on her own. Immediately he thought that the head injury might cause her to choke on her own blood, so he held her up and stanched the bleeding with his hand until employees from inside the nearby grocery store brought him clean smocks. He stayed there until emergency services arrived. "I can't tell you how long it was," he says. "It felt like an infinity."
Hernandez stayed with Giffords and held her hand, telling her to squeeze if she was in pain, which she did. He rode with her in the ambulance and explained what was going on while trying to contact her husband Mark Kelly and her parents. "The only thing that really sticks out," Hernandez says, reflecting on the day, "is when I talked to Gabby and let her know that I was going to get ahold of Mark, when I mentioned Mark and her parents, she squeezed my hand extra tight."
Speaking to Hernandez at a hotel in Tucson, it's impossible not to be struck by his maturity and poise. As he retells the story in front of an artificial fire, sitting in a cream and gold armchair while subdued lobby music plays, the scene seems like an absurdly cozy place to discuss the chaos of Jan. 8 but the setting is a perfect match for his calm and methodical explanation, his stoic way of conveying information without betraying emotion.
Wearing an all-black outfit with thick-rimmed, stylish glasses, he rarely pauses and never stumbles, exhibiting a talent for rhetoric that politicians four times his age would envy. He objects to the word hero, explaining that while he may have done something brave, dedicated public servants like Giffords are the ones who should be championed. But people who know him disagree. "He literally went in the line of fire to save Gabby," says Sami Hamed, a friend of both Hernandez and Giffords. "Not many people would do it. But also, not many people would be as calm as he was, during the shooting and after the shooting."
Hernandez's status in the town's collective memory was made clear on Wednesday, when his face flashed on the JumboTron at the McKale Memorial Center in Tucson, where President Obama arrived to make his memorial speech. The 14,000 people there erupted into a standing ovation at the sight of Hernandez. The intern, in his stunningly collected way, didn't smile as all those around him did. After the cheering continued for some time, he simply removed his glasses and somberly mouthed, Thank you. It was the first of many standing ovations he would receive throughout the night. His reception was only paralleled by that given to the President, who sat beside the intern throughout the evening.
Hernandez was one of the first speakers to say a few words, which he did with conviction and without looking down at any notes. "One thing that we have learned from this great tragedy is, we have come together," he said. "On Saturday, we all became Tucsonans. On Saturday, we all became Arizonans. And above all, we all became Americans." He again rejected his status as a hero and lauded the public servants and medical professionals in the story.
When Obama finally took the stage, he responded to Hernandez by articulating what the people were trying to convey with their cheers. "Our hearts are full of gratitude for those who saved others," Obama said, after announcing that Giffords had opened her eyes for the first time before the service started. "We are grateful to Daniel Hernandez, a volunteer in Gabby's office. And Daniel, I'm sorry. You may deny it, but we have decided you are a hero, because you ran through the chaos to minister to your boss and tended to her wounds and helped keep her alive." The crowd went wild with pride.
Hernandez, who is gay and Hispanic, has become a particular hero for those groups in recent days. "I think that what Daniel did has nothing to do with his sexuality, but being that he is openly gay, I think that it's really amazing and incredible to have someone within the gay community, particularly a young person, who can be seen as doing something heroic," says Danielle Flink, who serves with Hernandez on Tucson's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender commission. In a time when both of those minorities have been at the center of heated, emotional debates about immigration and bullying, he has served as a model of reason and strength.
"I think if there's a takeaway from this, the first is, public service needs to become a higher priority for everyone," Hernandez says. "But also making sure that as we move forward, we come together, regardless of race, gender, whatever, and come together as Americans. Because it's not just a Tucson tragedy. It's not just an Arizona tragedy. It's a national tragedy."