110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
By Pat Andrews
posted Apr 12, 2012 - 11:53:36am
When a small experimental aircraft crashed into the Northgate Publix in DeLand at 7:20 p.m. April 2, the scene outside immediately became pandemonium. Ambulances, police, rescue and other responders arrived with lights flashing. Volunteers tried to assist, while gawkers gathered. Emergency alarms bleeped from the store. Police routed traffic away from the store, herded store employees together, put waiting, concerned family members together, and kept order.
What had happened inside, minutes earlier, was even more chaotic.
Jose Velez, a Stetson University student, was inside Publix with a fraternity brother when the amateur-built Seawind 3000 amphibious plane crashed into the roof.
Velez, a junior majoring in integrated health sciences, is a U.S. Air Force veteran who served in Afghanistan. He and his friend had gone to the store’s delicatessen to get subs for supper.
They ate in the deli, then went toward the front register to pay for their food, when Velez’s friend decided to get some pasta, too, and headed down the shopping aisle. Velez stayed at the register.
About 15-20 seconds later, Velez felt a “massive vibration” in the store. The lights went out.
His military training kicked in, and Velez behaved as if he were under enemy attack.
“I hit the ground to get my bearings,” he said.
Prostrate on the floor, Velez saw the ceiling start to collapse, peeling down from one side, and thought the building had suffered a structural failure. He had no idea until half-an-hour later that a plane had crashed into the roof.
Velez heard a “whoof-whoof” sound.
“Then, there were two massive explosions,” he said.
An intense fire spread into the air, ran across the store’s ceiling in two different directions, then converged and shot out the roof.
Not knowing the cause of the explosion, and not knowing if more explosions would follow, Velez stood up, and started shouting for everyone to get out.
He was worried a gas line might explode.
“I said, ‘Let’s go, let’s go,’” Velez said. “Get out!”
The explosions, the confusion, and the chaos were similar to going through an attack in Afghanistan, Velez said.
People were “shell-shocked,” some of them unable to react, like soldiers he had seen after their camp was attacked, Velez said. They needed to be prodded into action.
Velez later heard himself screaming in the background on tapes of 911 calls made from the store.
Velez saw a man he believed to be a store manager running back and forth, perhaps checking the aisles for injured people. Velez wasn’t sure, though, and shouted, “Check the aisles!”
Meanwhile, his friend came toward him, yelling, “Help me! Help me!”
The friend — whom Velez did not identify to protect his friend’s privacy — had been wearing shorts, and was burned from his feet to his knees. He had put out the fire by himself.
This was about two minutes after Velez heard the initial vibration.
“I helped my buddy outside. I laid him down on the grass,” Velez said. He knew the EVAC ambulance crew would pick his friend up as soon as they arrived.
Meanwhile, Velez saw a number of people still standing by the front windows, where they could be injured by flying glass should there be another explosion. Velez told them to get away from the glass.
An off-duty paramedic who had been at Lowe’s came to assist the injured. The paramedic had a basic kit with him. Another man who had combat training in life support helped, too.
Police began to arrive, and Velez helped them keep people away from the store until enough officers were on scene to handle the crowd.
All this probably took five minutes.
Velez didn’t begin to understand there was a plane crash until someone asked, “What about the pilots?”
Velez said he understands an employee in the meat department helped the two occupants of the aircraft out the back of the store.
“I’m glad people were receptive to my voice. I didn’t want to see people hurt,” Velez said. “What I did was minimal.”
Due to a knee injury requiring reconstructive surgery, Velez couldn’t do much physically. He’s glad police let him help.
“I would have felt responsible if somebody in there had died,” he said.
Velez thinks there were so few injuries because most customers in the store were either in the front, as he was, or on the side, around the bakery area, and not in the aisles that were destroyed.
Of his friend, Velez said, “I’m glad he’s still alive, and in great spirits.”
Velez is also glad for the DeLand police and firefighters who quickly took control of the situation, and for the store personnel.
Once things calmed down, Velez left the scene, and called his friend’s parents to tell them what had happened.
Velez served in the Air Force 2004-08, and spent the last year as a senior airman in Afghanistan, attached to the Army’s 82nd Airborne. He was trained in intelligence and emergency operations.
Born in Puerto Rico, he grew up in Oviedo and is attending Stetson on the GI Bill.
Velez wants to go on to get a master’s degree in public health.
He volunteers with the Red Cross and, until his knee injury interfered, volunteered with Central Florida Search and Rescue.
“I want to be able to make a difference,” Velez said.
His friend would probably say he already has.
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