Laurel “Buff” Burkel lay unconscious with a broken neck on the day Greg Gangnuss clambered through smoke, fuel and twisted metal in order to pull her out of a crashed helicopter.
Nearly 20 months after that horrible day in Afghanistan, though, the Air Force colonel instantly knew her civilian rescuer when she spotted him at the Pentagon.
“Greg!” Burkel shouted, rushing toward Gangnuss when he walked into the conference room where the colonel was chatting with PEOPLE. “Thank you,” Burkel said emphatically, as she and Gangnuss embraced through smiles and mist-covered eyes.
It was the pair’s first reunion since the crash that killed five and injured four aboard the aircraft, and one on the ground. Burkel and Gangnuss reconnected June 21 at Air Force Magazine Day, an annual program for journalists, where they told their story.
It was nothing like the duo’s first encounter.
At the time, both were advisors stationed overseas: Burkel, to the Afghan Air Force; and Gangnuss, to the Afghan Ministry of Defense. Their jobs kept them in different orbits, sharing nothing but a locale.
“We never would have met each other,” Burkel tells PEOPLE.
Then came October 11, 2015.
On that day, Burkel joined other coalition personnel for a helicopter flight from the airport in Kabul to NATO headquarters, a short journey by air. As the two-helicopter flight approached the destination, the pilots saw that a soccer game was in progress atop the landing zone.
The pilots changed course.
Moments into the new route, the rotors on Burkel’s helicopter became ensnared in a surveillance balloon tether. The tether did not snap; instead, it held firm, preventing the rotors from holding the helicopter aloft.
On the ground, meanwhile, Gangnuss was in his office inside the NATO compound. The reverberation from a helicopter both off-key and very low overhead caught his attention.
“That doesn’t sound right,” Gangnuss recalled thinking.
Then came the horrific noise of the British Puma Mk 2 helicopter smashing into the ground at more than 4,000 feet per minute.
Gangnuss, a civil engineer, rushed outdoors.
There, he saw what was left of the aircraft as it lay on one side, spewing smoke and highly volatile aviation fuel.
Many in the area fled in fear of a likely explosion.
“I just knew when I saw it there were people hurt,” Gangnuss said. He ran toward the smoke-enshrouded wreck, and clambered atop in search of an opening.
“I saw a hand,” Gangnuss said as he quietly discussed the memory.
Drenched in fuel, Gangnuss removed the helicopter door, and began to dig.
Another rescuer, Army Maj. Reuben Trant, later told an Air Force writer that Gangnuss went in when no one on the ground could see the wreck through the smoke and the dust.
For more than an hour and a half, while a medic checked toe pulses on the entrapped passengers, Gangnuss and others continued their mission, working into the night by the glow of Trant’s hand-held light.
Tragically, five could not be saved. They included the pilot, the door gunner, a French contractor and two Americans who were flying with Burkel, Maj. Phyllis Pelky and Master Sgt. Gregory Kuhse.
The rescuers also found four survivors — among them, Burkel.
“I saw that it was an American colonel,” Gangnuss said. He knew right away: “It was one of ours.”
She was alive, but perilously so.
“If I had turned my head, or thrashed around, I could have killed myself,” says Burkel, whose only memory of the event is the sensation of tumbling forward into a state of “chaos, confusion and yelling.”
Many people jumped in to assist, Burkel says. “There was a lot of goodness on a really crappy day.”
While first responders worked to save the other injured, Burkel was whisked away and placed aboard a flight to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
Gangnuss and Trant remained on scene until the only thing left for them to do was to wash themselves off.
From there, Burkel proceeded toward recovery. Gangnuss went back to work. Eventually, so did Burkel. Once again, their work schedules kept them apart.
In recognition of Gangnuss’ actions that day, the Air Force honored him in February of this year with its Civilian Award for Valor. The award goes to non-service members who risk personal safety and show courage in the course of heroism.
Burkel was thrilled for Gangnuss to receive the award. “It’s great that he happens to be a civilian, because we don’t often think of civilians as heroic,” she says.
For Burkel, the one thing missing was to be able to thank her rescuer in person.
For Gangnuss, he wanted to encounter the healthy version of the colonel he last saw while she was strapped to a backboard, clinging to life.
The Pentagon event provided the opportunity to reconnect.
“I went there to meet the guy who saved my life that day,” Burkel says. “I had no idea when he was going to show up.”
While waiting for the Magazine Day panels to begin, Burkel stood holding a coffee cup while chatting with a PEOPLE reporter, talking about how excited she was to see Gangnuss.
“When he walked in, I was like, ‘Excuse me, I have to put this down and give this guy a hug,’ ” she says.
“She knew me right away!” Gangnuss marvels.
Their friendship clearly established, the two compared memories of the day one of them helped save the other’s life.
Later, the two were inseparable while at an Irish pub near the Pentagon.
“He’s definitely on my Christmas card list,” Burkel says.
Gangnuss deflected suggestions that he was a hero, saying that he acted not from heroism, but from ordinary human caring.
Burkel thinks otherwise. “A lot of us think we would be the ones who would run to help. He embodies it,” she says. “He did that noble thing we all hope we would do.”
Being able to thank him in person was “powerful,” Burkel says.
“I’ve never hugged a colonel before,” the unassuming Gangnuss said, smiling broadly. “Today I’ve done it twice.”
Before the gathering ended, the two lost track of all the hugs, but not of one another.
Says Burkel: “We’re friends for life.”