Neighbors, Master Sergeants…Heroes

Story by Air Force Senior Airman Laura Valentine, 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Photo: [Left to right] Master Sgt. Randy Butler, 22nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flightline production superintendent, Emma, 4, and her father Master Sgt. Jeremy Heitman, 22nd AMXS security manager, pose in front of the Heitman family pool Aug. 1, 2013, Derby, Kan. On July 27, Emma drowned in the pool and was revived by the two master sergeants. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Katrina M. Brisbin)

[Left to right] Air Force Master Sgt. Randy Butler, , Emma, 4, and her father Master Sgt. Jeremy Heitman, pose in front of the Heitman family pool Aug. 1, 2013, Derby, Kan. On July 27, Emma drowned in the pool and was revived by the two master sergeants. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Katrina M. Brisbin)

Air Force Master Sgt. Jeremy Heitman, 22nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron security manager, and his wife of 18 years, Joy, had prepared their four children, ages 18, 16, 7 and 4, with swim lessons and explicit rules about pool time, such as always wearing floatation devices and only swimming with mom or dad.

After 9 p.m., July 26, contractors finished installing the pool decks and railings for the four-foot above ground pool and were scheduled to arrive Monday morning to complete the safety gates and rail slats.

On the afternoon of July 27, Joy took both daughters into the pool and played until the family’s close friends, Master Sgt. Randy Butler, 22nd AMXS flightline production superintendent, his wife Kellie and their small dog, Buddy Bear, arrived to enjoy the uncharacteristically mild July day with a barbeque and swimming.

When the Butler’s arrived, both girls wanted out of the pool to play with the dog and were quickly out and wrapped in towels.

The next few minutes of the afternoon went by quickly and horrifically for the couple and their friends of nearly a decade.

While Jeremy and Randy sat and chatted under the gazebo, approximately 10 feet away from the edge of the pool, Buddy Bear darted across the street and was quickly followed by Joy and 7-year-old Jenna.

Joy and Jenna gave chase, and 4-year-old Emma retreated to the house to watch a movie. Randy and Jeremy walked to the edge of the fence gate about 20 paces away, called for Buddy and walked back to their gazebo seats.

Returning to the back yard, Joy and Kelly stopped near the gazebo and Kelly casually asked where Emma was. Then, shielding her eyes from the glare of the afternoon sun on the pool surface pointed and asked, “What’s that?”

“That’s when I turned and saw the brown hair, upside down,” said Joy, “[Emma] on her belly in the middle of the pool.”

In less than a second, Joy dove over the edge of the pool and reached her daughter’s body, followed immediately by Jeremy. Lifting Emma’s head from the water, Joy hoped her daughter would gasp for air but heard nothing.

“There was nothing to her – no heartbeat or breathing,” recounted Joy. “She was just blue.”

The Heitman’s handed Emma’s limp body over the pool edge to Randy, who quickly laid her in the grass and began rescue breathing. Jeremy joined him to do chest compressions while Joy called 911.

“When I got her in my arms she was lifeless,” said Randy. “I thought ‘this can’t be happening, I have to get her back to life.’ I immediately set her on the ground and started rescue breathing.”

The two men worked in tandem to revive Emma with minimal communication.

“It naturally happened,” said Jeremy. “He was breathing; as soon as he was done I knew to take over, and then as soon as I was done he took over. Didn’t even have to say anything, he was just there.”

After what seemed like an eternity to the men, they revived Emma to the point of shallow breathing.

“I saw a twitch, and they rolled her onto her side,” Joy said. “All of the sudden, this green stuff came out of her nose, and she began breathing weakly.”

By the time the two had revived Emma, the Derby, Kan., ambulance was still en route, having been called to help another drowning victim at a community pool.

Unknown neighbors surrounded the family and comforted Jenna. One man wearing a fire and rescue shirt assisted Jeremy and Randy in keeping Emma stable.

Eight minutes after the 911 call, the ambulance arrived.

“The next thing I know, I’m in the back of the ambulance on the way to Wesley Medical Center’s trauma unit,” said Joy.

“Her cry was the best thing to hear,” she said, referring to hearing Emma through hospital room doors.

Emma’s cries offered Joy reprieve while she was unable to be with her daughter. X-rays revealed she was doing fine.

“You hear so many stories about people doing CPR and breaking ribs,” said Jeremy. “We didn’t break any ribs, or put too much air in the stomach.”

Only a few hours after the ordeal began, Emma was discharged from the hospital and on her way home, craving her favorite food, pizza.

“Her lips were back to a rosy, beautiful pink,” said Joy.

Joy is grateful to the Butlers and unknown man who helped save her child, saying, “these people didn’t have to help. A lot of people nowadays don’t.”

“If Kelly hadn’t asked right at that moment, I would have thought nothing of the pool,” said Joy. “I’m very thankful to the Butlers. Without both of them here, my daughter would not be here today.”

While some individuals react to a traumatic situation by freezing, this wasn’t the case for Jeremy and Randy.

As a prior active duty service member and 18-year military spouse, Joy is aware of training requirements and classes airmen have.

“I know that [active duty] have lots of training and classes to sit through,” she said. “That training is sometimes taken for granted, but it’s serious and you might have to use it one day.”

Jeremy and Randy are certified every two years in CPR since they work on the flightline and both have prior experience as first aid and CPR instructors. Jeremy has been in the Air Force for almost 21 years and Randy nearly 20 years.

“I think instinct takes over,” said Randy. “Training is drilled into us, and it becomes part of our natural instinct because we’ve been in for so long and had the training so often.”

Emma is doing well nearly one week after the incident and the family plans to enjoy their new pool. Not waiting for the contractors to return and finish, Jeremy spent the day after the incident constructing safety gates with locks in order to better secure the pool.

“One of the fears that we all have is this swimming pool,” said Jeremy, “and taking it down is not going to solve the problem. To solve the problem is to work through it. We’re not getting rid of the pool so that we can conquer our fears.”

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