WATSONVILLE—It was a homecoming celebration for the books: About 60 firefighters, police officers, professionals, retirees, friends and family assembled at Watsonville Municipal Airport Monday to welcome home one of their own.

At 12:30 p.m. a private jet landed, swung down the tarmac and stopped at the terminal to usher Watsonville Fire Capt. Danny Lucas back to his hometown. 

Just before Thanksgiving, while on a hunting trip to Montana, someone’s gun accidentally went off. The bullet went through a vehicle door and through one of Lucas’ legs. By the time the bullet hit his other leg it caused severe trauma. Lucas ultimately lost that leg.

The hunting party was an hour away from phone service. That meant the team had to rush its way back to civilization and call for help. Inclement weather prohibited a rescue helicopter’s response.

Then the magic began. Firefighters in Montana weren’t about to let Lucas go without a Thanksgiving meal and they responded with a bed-side holiday feast. 

Meanwhile, word circulated around Watsonville and people starting pooling ideas on how to help. Over the phone with Pajaronian reporter Todd Guild, Lucas plainly stated the accident wouldn’t stop him from continuing his work as a firefighter.

Fire Capt. Matt Ryan became the quarterback. One of the first people he reached out to was Ken Schwan, owner of Monterey Bay Caterers. Schwan also lost a leg, but, in his case, in a motorcycle crash.

“I knew Ken would know what to say and the right things to do,” Ryan said. “This is all family here and we take care of each other—it’s what we do.”

Battalion Chief Tom Avila, who was part of the welcoming party Monday, said he had a hard time finding words to describe the outpouring of support.

“For somebody to come home to something like this is just indescribable,” he said. “Danny deserves this. It just feels good to know that he is now home and safe and healthy.” 

Climbing off the Citation II private jet—a round trip from Salinas to Montana to Watsonville, provided by the local Dobler family—Lucas was accompanied by his two sons and his wife Cindi.

The sight of a long row of fire engines, police cars and people caught all of them off guard.

“This is amazing,” Cindi said. “We did not expect this. I just thought a few people would be waiting for us. I don’t know what to say.”

Emerging gingerly from the doorway of the jet, as the first splash of California sunlight hit Lucas since the start of his ordeal, he eased himself out and into a wheelchair. That’s when Lucas turned toward the gate and was greeted with a wave of applause, from young and old, and an exuberant bark from an excited dog.

“He wanted to get out on his own and he did,” Ryan said. “This is what they call a job of honor. This is truly an honor.”

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Tarmo Hannula has been the lead photographer with The Pajaronian newspaper in Watsonville since 1997. He also reports on a wide range of topics, including police, fire, environment, schools, the arts and events. A fifth generation Californian, Tarmo was born in the Mother Lode of the Sierra (Columbia) and has lived in Santa Cruz County since the late 1970s. He earned a BA from UC Santa Cruz and has traveled to 33 countries.