PHOENIX — He sat next to President Barack Obama in the nationally televised event. People are lining up to shake his hand, seeking an autograph or photograph. A mariachi band recognized him and rushed over with a spontaneous serenade.
Intern Daniel Hernandez’s brave and clear-headed actions in helping save the life of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot in the head last Saturday made him an unlikely hero. His appearance Wednesday at the Tucson memorial service for the shooting victims — he spoke humbly about his role and was embraced by the president — has moved his new-found celebrity into the stratosphere.
His poise and unscripted remarks in front of the president, other political dignitaries, victims’ families and others in the 13,000-plus crowd in a basketball arena have left people amazed — and heartened — that it was coming from a 20-year-old University of Arizona student.
In his speech, Hernandez insisted he was not a hero. In the shooting’s aftermath, he raced to Giffords’ side, holding her, applying pressure to her wounds until first responders arrived. Obama politely disagreed, assuring him that he was, in fact, a hero.
Since Wednesday night, Hernandez has given more than 200 interviews. Trying to walk into the medical center where Giffords is hospitalized or anywhere else, he is surrounded by throngs of well-wishers.
Before the memorial, the biggest group Hernandez had ever addressed was about 30 people.
"And even that I think is a bit of a stretch," Hernandez told The Associated Press.
Hernandez said the whole event still seems unreal. He can’t even remember exactly what he said Wedneday night.
"I ended up throwing away the speech I was going to be giving moments before I went up on stage. I think it’s really disingenuous to be doing anything other than speaking from the heart."
Hernandez had been an intern with Giffords’ office for all of five days when the shooting happened at a district meet-and-greet outside a supermarket. He also volunteered as a teenager for her 2008 congressional campaign.
Born in Tucson to parents of Mexican heritage, Hernandez grew up the oldest of three children. His parents taught him and his two sisters from a young age to give back.
"My mom is like that. She has a big heart," younger sister Alma Hernandez said. "My dad always thinks about the community. He always wants to do better. He always told us we have to always go back to our community where we came from to help out."
Their father is retired and their mother has a side business baking cakes.
Hernandez’s talent for public speaking was developed in high school, where he participated in academic decathlons, Junior Honor Society and student council.
Besides interning for Giffords, Hernandez was appointed as a commissioner at large to the City of Tucson Commission on Gay, Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Issues. He plans to help the organization with education outreach on issues such as bullying.
C. Michael Woodward, co-chair of the commission, said Hernandez had a resume bigger than some candidates twice his age.
"It was pretty clear he was a mover and a shaker long before any of this happened," Woodward said. "The real heroes are the ones who dedicate themselves to public service but that’s what he’s planning to do anyway. He just got his hero badge early."
The amazing improvements in Giffords’ medical condition have helped him get through what’s been a traumatic, surreal week, he said.
"It’s really hard to describe how much better I feel and just knowing she’s been a fighter," Hernandez said. "I can’t say I’m surprised that something miraculous happened but still, it sends chills down your spine."
Many observed after his speech that he would be a natural for public office, but Hernandez downplays the idea.
"My main focus is making sure I can get back to school, make sure no matter what I do I finish up for my degree," Hernandez said.
He is also trying to juggle the public’s curiosity about him while maintaining the focus on the shooting victims, those he describes "as the real heroes," including first responders.
"I keep saying I don’t want the attention," adding that he feels guilty when he is asked for interviews — "if that makes sense to anyone but me. It’s just really hard to balance right now."
Hernandez isn’t the only one who’s been overwhelmed by all the sudden attention. His family has also been stunned by how much his life has changed.
"I still see him and I think he’s so normal," said Alma Hernandez. "I find it awkward that people see him as a celebrity type. Little kids look up to him. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it. It’s just weird."