The late Arvin S. Gibson was a retired nuclear engineer, a prominent near-death experience researcher and a co-founder of the Utah chapter of IANDS. His research culminated in the publication of several major works on the subject of NDEs including research on how NDE research supports doctrines of the Mormon (LDS) Church. In 1996, Arvin Gibson interviewed a firefighter named John Hernandez who had a most unusual NDE while working with other firefighters in a forest. What makes it unique is that it happened at the same time as several co-workers were also having an NDE. During their NDEs, they actually met each other and saw each other above their lifeless bodies. All survived and they verified with each other afterwards that the experience actually happened. The following testimonies of Arvin Gibson and John Hernandez can be found in both of Gibson’s books, Fingerprints of God (Gibson, 1996, pp. 128-31) and They Saw Beyond Death (Gibson, 1999, pp. 128-33).
1. John Hernandez’s 1989 Group NDE
Arvin Gibson met John Hernandez when he came to his home in 1996 to be interviewed by Sandra Cherry, a near-death researcher doing work for her Master’s thesis. John had previously called Gibson from Colorado after having read one of Gibson’s books. On that occasion John explained over the telephone what led to his NDE. His experience was sufficiently interesting that Gibson’s local chapter of IANDS invited John to tell his story at one of their meetings.
John began the day with a feeling of foreboding and indicated to his wife that he might never see his family again. He found that many others on the crew also felt uneasy. He said it was difficult to explain, but that he was uncomfortable leaving his family on that day. He had a premonition that something untoward was about to happen, but he felt duty-bound to respond to his work commitments.
John was a large man, several inches taller than my six-feet-two inches. He had an athletic build and moved with the easy grace of someone at home with his own frame. He spoke with a quiet humility not uncommon to large men. His appearance and demeanor were not surprising, though, since he had already told me of his occupation. He was a member of an elite firefighting group called the “Hotshots;” a crew whose job it was to be dropped into particularly troublesome forest fires and bring them under control.
During a wilderness fire in 1989 a helicopter dropped John, as crew boss, and two 20-person Hotshot crews onto a fire at the top of a steep mountain. The fire was burning below the crews in thick Ponderosa Pine and Oak brush. The wind was blowing the fire downhill away from the crews. The decision was made to try and construct a fire line downhill towards the existing fire with one crew, and have the second crew follow, starting a back-fire into the main blaze.
Creating a fire line involved clearing a path six feet down to mineral soil by using power saws and other hand tools. The second 20 person crew — whose job it was to initiate the back fire — started lighting any unburned fuel in front of the newly constructed fire line. The fire they were lighting was supposed to burn ahead of them with the wind down the slope toward the primary blaze thus stopping the main fire from advancing any further.
The slope of the hill the men and women were working on was about 40 degrees. They worked their way down the steep slope, when, part way down, to their horror, the wind changed to an upward direction. The trees in front of the men and women traveling down the hill erupted into flames with explosive force.
John explained how firefighters have a fire-resistant pack that is carried on their web gear. The pack includes an aluminum foil-type material which they can throw over themselves as they crouch to the ground in an emergency. These foils are only effective if the people can deploy the shelters after properly preparing the ground by reaching mineral soil with no residual flammable organic materials. The problem in this case was that the enormous winds caused by the inferno erupted all around them and the immediacy of the crisis made the shelters useless.
The panic stricken crews started to try and go back up the trench trail they had built. Trees exploded and fire engulfed the immediate area, and oxygen feeding the conflagration was sucked from near the ground where the people struggled to breathe. One by one the men and women fell to the Earth suffocating from lack of oxygen. They were reduced to crawling on their hands and knees while they attempted to get back up the hill to a safer area.
Suddenly John had the thought: “This is it. I am going to die.” And with that thought in mind he found himself looking down on his body which was lying in a trench. The noise, heat and confusion from the inferno surrounding them was gone and John felt completely at peace. As he looked around, John saw other fire-fighters standing above their bodies in the air. One of John’s crew members had a defective foot which he had been born with. As he came out of his body John looked at him and said: “Look, Jose, your foot is straight.”
A bright light then appeared. John described the bright light in this manner: “The light — the fantastic light! It was brighter than the brightest light I had ever seen on earth. It was brighter than the sun shining on a field of snow. Yet I could look at it, and it didn’t hurt my eyes.”
[The light] parted, and John saw numerous people, many who were his deceased relatives, and pets were there along with members of his family. Standing in the light was John’s deceased great-grandfather who died when John was nine-years-old. He appeared as an old man so he could be easily recognized, then changed to look younger, about thirty. He told John that they had the ability to appear in forms so they could be recognized. He also told him that he had been assigned to look after him during his lifetime on earth. He also acted as John’s guide throughout his NDE. John met with others of his ancestors and had an extensive experience.
His great-grandfather ultimately communicated by mind thought to John that it was John’s choice whether or not he should return to Earth. Not wanting to come back from the beautiful and peaceful place that he was in, John argued with his great-grandfather. Explaining that it would be devastating to return to a horribly burned body, John pled with his great-grandfather to remain. John said that all of this communication was by questions he would think of and have instantly answered in his mind.
John was informed that neither he, nor any of his crew who chose to return, would suffer ill effects from the fire. This would be done so that “God’s power over the elements would be made manifest.”
Returning to his body was one of the more painful events of his life. When I asked John why it was painful he said, “When I was there, everything was so perfect, and my spirit body, it … it was so free. It felt like everything was limitless. When I came back, well you know, there’s always something plaguing you, like arthritis, or sore muscles, or … but not there. Getting back into my physical body felt cramped — held back. For example, when I used to play football for a few days after a game or hard practice I was always sore. The same thing was true after coming back into my physical body. I hurt and felt constrained, and it was hard to get used to for some time.”
Finding himself again in his body, John looked around and noticed that some of the metal tools they had used to fight the fire had melted. Despite this intense heat, and the fire still raging around him, he was able to walk up the hill in some sort of protected bubble. He did not hear nor feel the turbulence around him. Upon reaching the relative safety of the hilltop, the noise of the fire was again evident, and he saw other members of the crew also gathered there.
The entire happening was so profound that upon escaping from what they had supposed would be sure death the group of saved people knelt in prayer to thank the Lord for their deliverance. All of the crew escaped and the only visual evidence on them of what they had been through was a few singed hairs.
John said that in comparing reports of their different episodes the men and women were astonished that they had each undergone some type of near-death experience. And this happened to a diverse ethnic and religious group of Hispanics, Caucasians and American Indians. Throughout the summer as the crew worked together they continued to discuss the miraculous adventure which they had lived through. Others of the crew confirmed, for example, that they also felt the ill effects of returning to their physical bodies. They, too, had met with other members of their deceased families and were given the choice of remaining where they were or of returning to earth.
2. John Hernandez’s Second NDE in 1999
Arvin Gibson’s 2004 follow-up interview with John Hernandez appears in his book They Saw Beyond Death: New Insights on Near-Death Experiences where Hernandez described his second NDE. Arvin writes, “In May, 2004, I called John and explained that I wanted to interview him again. This time it would be to get an update on his life since the original visit in 1996. Most importantly, I would be interested in any new spiritual experiences he might have had. As he recounted the recent happenings in his life, he said that in the spring of 1999 he was living at the family ranch in New Mexico with his thirteen-year-old son, James.” [John told Arvin the following:]
“The day started normally with James and I saddling up our horses and riding half-a-day looking for livestock belonging to the family. We had not had any luck so we decided to eat lunch. After lunch we located ten or fifteen head, and we decided to take them to headquarters and call it a day.
“As is typical, we split up to gather the livestock together. Shortly after splitting up, my horse blew up with me and drove the saddle horn deep into my groin area. Unbeknown to me, this caused extensive internal bleeding. I must have been thrown off and knocked unconscious for a length of time. When I came to, James was urging me to wake up. I responded, but in a fog, I did not know where I was, who he was, or why I was lying on the ground.
“As my head dented and James recalled the events to me, it became clear I was seriously hurt. While wrestling with trying to stay conscious, my deceased Grandfather and deceased Great-grandfather appeared to me. They both took over the situation and instructed me to tell James to go for help. This I did. My grandparents agreed to split up — one stay with we and the other go with James.
“It seemed like hours that James was gone, when actually it was only minutes. As James rode off my horse followed him, reins flying in all directions. I must have been to this part of the ranch hundreds of times and could count on one hand the number of people I had encountered. The same is true today, this area is a very remote area.
“James said he had barely reached the main din road when a truck stopped with Colorado license plates. The driver had seen my horse without a rider and suspected something must be wrong.
“As it turned out, the driver and his wife were a Doctor and a Nurse visiting New Mexico. They lived in Denver, Colorado.
“When they returned, the doctor could tell I was near death and asked James to go with the doctor’s wife to Cuba, New Mexico for help. Later, an ambulance arrived and it was determined that I needed a “flight to life” because of the extent of my injuries.
“While waiting for the helicopter to arrive, a number of people from my town arrived, including members of my family. As each spoke to me, a different ‘deceased’ member of their immediate family would come forward from a large group of deceased persons gathered around me. One interesting aspect of this situation was that I puzzled over the fact that I could see and communicate with these deceased people, but their relatives could not. It bothered me so much that I told one lady ambulance driver, who I knew, that she was rude in not embracing her father, who I also knew and who had died some years before. She dismissed my chastisement as delusion caused by my injuries.
“One who did believe me was my grandmother who had come from town when the ambulance arrived. Her deceased husband was present, and I told her so. She began to cry, especially when I mentioned that he told me she would be coming to him shortly. She died three months later.
“While I was in this condition and could see and communicate with people who had passed on, I saw a number of events which I understood could happen in the future. Some were distressing to me, since they involved catastrophes about which I could do nothing. One circumstance that I saw, however, was a joyous one. Another son would be born to me. At the time, I was single with no particular prospects for marriage. Subsequently, I met and married a lovely lady, and my wife and I both rejoice over the birth and life of Sebastion.”
Arvin Gibson stated, “John’s recovery required extensive surgery and physical therapy. Today he can walk with some difficulty. Feeling has returned to the lower portion of his legs, but not entirely to the upper portion. As we conversed, I got the same impression from John that I previously did — of a man thoroughly involved in living life to the fullest. He sounded upbeat and optimistic about the future.”
3. Insights from John Hernandez’s NDEs
The following are some of the insights he learned from his NDEs as documented in a June 1996 Newsletter from the Utah Chapter of IANDS.
John said that he learned that God exists and is in charge, there is a Jesus Christ, and Satan is real, and the struggle between him and mortals is real.
While visiting his ancestors, John asked about Heaven and Hell, he was shown a dark, cold place where those who had committed heinous acts were confined. He said that people on earth can be forgiven if they repent, and there is a judgment, with no arguments because each person’s actions will be replayed to them.
John learned that when mortals come to earth, they forget what they knew in their pre-mortal life. The earth is a mirror image of that pre-mortal place, so when mortals visit places on earth that are the reflection of places there, they have a sense of deja vu when they are allowed a glimpse of those forgotten memories. There was no language barrier there because there is a universal communication and everyone heard their own language.
John said he moved as quickly as he had thoughts, and there was a lot of love and no contention. He didn’t want to leave, but his great-great grandfather told him it wasn’t his time yet, that he had to return to earth. He was told that there were no guarantees, and if he blew it, he couldn’t return to that beautiful place. He said he didn’t want to go back to his body if it was badly burned, and was promised that it wouldn’t be, that God would use this to show his power over the elements. He was also told that there was no guarantee that there wouldn’t be fatalities, because the others had their free agency and could chose to not return to earth. John felt a responsibility to complete his assigned mission so he returned.
As it turned out, all the crew members returned, each having had an NDE. They discovered the fire was still burning, so hot it had melted their tools, yet none of the crew were burned, except for singed hair. They were able to walk through the flames to the top of the hill, not feeling the heat. Although they were from many races, men and women of different religions or no religion, after they reached summit, everyone fell to their knees in thankful prayer for their preservation.
Suddenly the fighters could feel the flames again, and they hiked out to a ranch in the area where they called to be picked up and taken back to their base camp. John still fights fires but is more careful now because he has better understanding of the importance of life and doesn’t need careless thrills anymore.
From his NDE, John learned that love and acceptance of each other are the most important things on earth. He emphasized that we lived before we came here, we live now, and we will continue to live.
During his NDE, John asked numerous questions and some of the answers he received were:
Free agency is a number-one issue, and wrongs are allowed to happen because of this agency.
Everyone has equal chances to make good choices and will be judged on how they use their agency.
Not only will people be judged for their actions, they are accountable for how they react to situations that they face.
Punishment for suicide depends on the motivation. Those who chose to take “the easy way out” were shunned, while those who committed suicide because their frame of mind was not normal and would not have done it other wise were not shunned.
There were beings of both genders in the spirit world, and men and women were equal. Women in that spiritual realm are concerned how men treat women on earth. He learned that because God places women in a position of high esteem, men will be judged harshly if they mistreat them.
Marriage relationships are especially important, and couples should learn to get along, be kind to each other and not push each others buttons.
Husbands and wives will be judged jointly and will both be held responsible for how they raise their children.
Sometimes we recognize people on earth because we knew them as premortals before we came here.
Often couples make pre-mortal covenants to find each other during mortality, and when they find each other they know they are supposed to be together for eternity.
Pre-mortals make promises to deity concerning things they are to accomplish on earth.
Spirits come to earth to gain a body. They want to come here and will accept bad conditions to do so.
Life starts at conception, and unborn spirits are able to visit their unborn body like we visit an unfinished house.
Spirits are full grown when they enter their infant body at birth.
Some people are born with disabilities so thy can have certain experiences that can only be provided by those bodies.
Everyone must give up ill feeling toward each other. These feelings cause illness and shorten life.
People in the spirit world can petition for those on earth to live longer or die sooner so they can fill certain needs or do jobs that must be done.
There is enough food, necessities and room for everyone on earth, but because of the wickedness of some leaders, people suffer. Those leaders will be held responsible for their greed.
4. John Hernandez’s March 2012 Presentation
While doing research for this article, I discovered an MP3 audio broadcast of a presentation given by John Hernandez in 2012 before the Utah Chapter of IANDS which you can download here.