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Mormon FBI special agent performs dangerous water rescue in Puerto Rico

By Jason Wright

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, March 29 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Brothers Barry Knapp, Rich Knapp and David Knapp met Hector Gonzales in Puerto Rico.

David Knapp

Editor's note: This is part two of a three-part series on FBI Special Agent Daniel "Danny" Knapp. In this installment, Jason Wright tells of Knapp's daring rescue. Read part one here and part three here.

In November of 2011, FBI Special Agent Danny Knapp’s career was riding a wave beyond his wildest dreams. Knapp had just returned to his station in Puerto Rico after being presented with the FBI Director’s Award for Outstanding Criminal Investigation and the 2011 Attorney General’s Award for Excellence in Law Enforcement.

Within a month, however, the awards would mean little when stacked against true heroism.

On Dec. 29, Knapp took advantage of a rare day off to visit the beach with a group of good friends. The water was extremely rough, so the gang wisely admired the powerful sea from the safety of sand. They watched violent waves rise with angry tempers, reaching 15 feet before crashing down and quickly regrouping for another round.

Meanwhile, three Puerto Rican young men bobbed helplessly in the ocean out of sight, well beyond the final line of waves that punished the beach. Two of them would somehow find their way to safety and plead for help for the third. He was drowning, they said, and needed to be rescued.

Against the advice of his friends, Knapp insisted on attempting to locate and save the young man he’d never met. He assured them this wasn't his first rescue, and even though he wasn’t on the clock or properly equipped, when your life is dedicated to protecting others, nothing else matters.

It was time for a rescue.

Knapp plunged into the ocean and eventually found 18-year-old Hector Gonzalez. The exhausted young man was struggling against an undertow that pulled both swimmers further from shore. Just as he had with his brother David in a hospital pre-op room years before, Knapp comforted and relaxed Gonzalez. "You're going to be all right," he told him repeatedly.

For nearly 90 minutes Knapp swam with Gonzalez tucked under his left arm, keeping his head above water and offering tips to conserve his energy. Each painful kick prolonged one life and shortened another. Each stroke demonstrated devotion both to God and to one of his children.

A massive wave fatefully separated the two men just moments before a rescue helicopter arrived. Clinging to life with his pulse a faint whisper, Gonzalez was lifted to safety and a waiting ambulance. When the helicopter returned and finally found Knapp, it was obvious his spirit was already beginning the divine walk home.

EMTs spent 30 minutes working to revive Knapp, to repay his lifesaving miracle and to pull him back to their side of the veil. But there would be no storybook ending — Special Agent Danny Knapp was dead.

Later that day, officials from the FBI visited Knapp’s apartment. Renae Knapp, Danny’s mother, said when agents arrived to secure his weapons and computer, they were shocked at what they saw in the unmarried-man’s home. “He owned very little,” she said. “He had a bed, computer, a chair and on the wall was a picture of Christ. By his bed were his scriptures.”

Memorial services were held in both San Juan and Las Vegas and each was attended by hundreds of family, friends and high-ranking FBI officials. Among those in the crowd in Puerto Rico was a grateful, humble young Hector Gonzalez. He was overwhelmed that Knapp’s entire family embraced him so warmly — with kind words and loving arms.

Last week I had the honor of speaking to Gonzalez by phone from his home in San Juan. I asked him to describe his life today, more than one year since the tragedy took one man and rescued another.

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