Yesenia B. Sevilla: Witness to acts of grace, courage and humility


Published: Tuesday, January 31, 2012 at 11:47 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 31, 2012 at 11:47 a.m.

Dear Sheriff Darnell: I imagine that most correspondence you receive is negative, with citizens quick to complain and criticize. May I assure you, that this is not that kind of letter. On Sunday (and most of Saturday night) I was a proud Alachua County Citizen, riding with Deputy Yakubsin.

As a member of Leadership Gainesville 38, we were all asked to do a law enforcement shadow, and I selected to ride with the ASO. My appointment was for a 12 hour shift with Districts 1&2, Team 1 (evenings/nights) starting at 6 p.m. Saturday.

My shift began with reporting to the Paynes Prairie Fire on 441, and observing the deputies control traffic and relieve the day shift. My shift was to end at 6 a.m. Sunday morning, but it ended closer to 8:30 a.m., as we found ourselves coming full circle and right back into the Prairie Prairie fires again.

Sheriff, I was there with this amazing team of individuals in the middle of one of the most extraordinary, tragic and unforgettable events of my life. As the calls started coming in about the first accidents on I-75, it was hard to keep it all straight in my head. How many accidents? What was on fire? All I knew for sure was that people were hurt and in danger, and the ASO was ready to respond.

And respond they did! Without hesitation, all of the deputies involved were coordinating with one another, making sure that everyone was accounted for, and determining how best to help those unfortunate souls involved in the multiple vehicle accidents now littering the interstate in a fiery, smoky, foggy mess.

What I witnessed was humbling, and I doubt that I can forget some of the images. But what is most imprinted in my mind, and which I would never want to forget, is the heroism and compassion embodied in your deputies.

The leadership of Lt. Moran, Sgt. Scott, and Sgt. Powers was exemplary. Their calm and competent direction kept everyone on the team safe, and thus better able to handle the crisis. The entire team was assessing the damages, finding the victims, assisting the Fire & Rescue teams, closing down the interstate; and with little to no visibility at all.

The team was like a well-oiled machine, yet never lost focus on the human element of this tragedy. Asking everyone they came across if they were okay, if they needed anything, thanking them for their patience as help was on the way. They checked and double checked every ditch and every hazy stretch of road to make sure that all were accounted for.

I watched deputies Roberts, Knapp, Hulst, Yakubsin, Skelly, Nystrom, Qualmonn, Nicols, Coonce and Siem, and Sgt. Rooney fight the blinding smoke, the fog and the bitter cold. They led in the rescue vehicles that couldn't see two feet in front of them, slowly showing the way on foot.

The team was in constant contact with the Florida Highway Patrol, the rescue agencies, and each other. They kept the mildly injured and witnesses warm so that they felt comfort while the critical were attended to. They distributed water to all who were affected by the bitter smoke, they escorted stranded, uninjured drivers off of I-75; and so much more.

I watched it all in quiet awe.

The news will no doubt focus on the death toll, the fire itself, and on all the details that sensationalize the story but omit the more important reality. These brave officers made the difference that morning, between tragedy and true catastrophe. These men and women serve my community with grace, courage and humility. I hope I can repay them someday for what they taught me.

My humble thanks,

Yesenia B. Sevilla,

Leadership Gainesville 38

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