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.
Gonzalez, who’s learned to speak near-fluent English, said he wants to honor the miracle of that day with his daily choices. “I am going to live my life worthy of his rescuing me. I want to be better: a better student and a better man.”
He describes the push he felt then in the water and now on ground to go on with his life. “I help everybody I can,” he said. “I want to be like Daniel. If I were to see someone drowning, I would swim out for them. I would try to save them because he did that for me.”
The longer we spoke, the more it became clear that Gonzalez didn’t just mean someone drowning in water, but someone being pulled under by loneliness, sadness or sickness.
Today, Gonzalez has lofty and admirable goals. He wants a college degree, a family and a career with the FBI. One of his greatest dreams is to carry on Knapp’s professional legacy and to contribute in his own way.
Who would bet against him?
Certainly not Danny’s uncle, Carter Knapp. I first learned of Danny’s heroics from Carter and his wonderful wife, Yvonne, my good friends in our small town of Woodstock, Va. Danny was extremely close to his aunt and uncle, even inviting them to serve as his substitute parents at his graduation from the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.
In fact, they were at his side as often as possible, joining other family members six years later when Danny won both FBI honors in Washington, D.C. Because of the tragedy seven weeks later, Carter Knapp was the last member of the family to see Danny alive. They embraced a final time at the departures curb at Dulles International Airport.
Carter recalled his reaction to the news of Danny’s death. “The rescue was totally in line with what we know about Danny — always thinking about others without regard for self. That’s how he lived and how he died. Knowing how Danny lived his life, he would always make the choice to help others with no thought for himself.”
I’ve also had the privilege of exchanging email and speaking by phone with Hector’s mother, Milagros López. “We will never forget Danny Knapp,” she wrote in Spanish. “He was a great man, both in his work and as a human being. This past December, we all went to the beach in Fajardo, remembering everything and thanking God for the opportunity to continue living. We salute Danny Knapp and his family forever.”
They aren’t the only ones paying tribute. The FBI has named several things after agent Knapp and are preparing a multimedia overview of his life that will run on a digital kiosk in all 56 of the bureau’s field offices.
I spoke to agents in San Juan and asked them to reflect on Knapp and his career. Special Agent Maritza Conde-Vazqu called Knapp an outstanding agent and human being. “His contributions to Operation Guard Shack, the largest public corruption investigation in FBI history will never be forgotten. Moreover, Danny is a role model to follow. His way of life exemplifies the core values of the FBI. Fidelity to the right things, Bravery in the face of adversity and Integrity in all things. He is missed by his friends and colleagues from the San Juan Division and every one that knew him."
While all would agree he is missed, none would deny his mission lives on. Hector Gonzalez pledges a better life, the FBI honors his career, Danny’s brother David Knapp carries a literal piece of him each day in a healthy kidney.
There are others, still. All of Danny’s organs were donated and the FBI reports that several more lives were saved as a direct result of his healthy lifestyle and sacrifice.
Had Danny Knapp finally done enough? Was he finished serving, at last?
His family probably thought so, at least until Easter morning, 2012. It turns out Knapp had at least one more life to change. And this time, the rescue was spiritual.
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters," and "The 96th Annual Apple Valley Barn Dance." He can be reached at [email protected] or jasonfwright.com.