Fla. firefighter-paramedic recalls saving fellow first responder

Firefighter-Paramedic James Axiotis was off duty when he aided a police officer having a heart attack at the gym


Victoria Villanueva-Marquez
The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — James Axiotis was about halfway through his gym workout when he noticed a group of people gathering around a man on the ground.

As he inched closer, the off-duty Daytona Beach firefighter caught sight of the man's backpack.

Daytona Beach firefighter James Axiotis, left, is shown with Officer Sean Walker three weeks after Walker’s heart attack. (Photo/Daytona Beach Fire Department)
Daytona Beach firefighter James Axiotis, left, is shown with Officer Sean Walker three weeks after Walker’s heart attack. (Photo/Daytona Beach Fire Department)

He had seen it before.

The backpack belonged to Daytona Beach police Officer Sean Walker. The first responders, who often crossed paths in the field, had known each other for more than 10 years.

On Jan. 11, Walker, 55, collapsed on the floor of an L.A. Fitness in Port Orange, where he and Axiotis often chatted before their morning workouts.

As Walker fought for breath, his face and neck began turning purple.

Axiotis asked a bystander to get an automated external defibrillator and Walker stopped breathing before they returned.

"It was nerve-racking," Axiotis said last week. "It was even worse because it was somebody I knew. I see him in the gym every morning. ... It just didn't seem like that would happen to him."

Axiotis rushed to perform CPR, and then delivered a shock to Walker using the automated external defibrillator.

He began CPR again. Walker was still unconscious, still unresponsive.

But he then began to breathe. Axiotis reached up, and Walker had a pulse.

Paramedics arrived soon after, and Walker was taken to the hospital.

"I was grateful," Axiotis said. "Surprised that it went as smooth as it did. Most people don't come back from something like that. He had a massive heart attack right in front of my eyes."

Axiotis was honored for his heroism earlier this year at the inaugural First Responders Banquet, which was presented by The News-Journal.

The thought of losing Walker began to weigh on the 34-year-old Axiotis — a paramedic recently promoted to the rank of lieutenant — when he headed back to his truck after the incident.

"I was hopeful," he said. "But I knew he wasn't out of the water yet."

Unlike Axiotis, Walker cannot recall any of the details of the incident.

"I never felt any pain or anything like that," Walker said in a phone interview last week. "I just went down. The next thing I knew I woke up on a ventilator in the hospital."

The two first met after Axiotis began taking classes at Daytona State College's Law Enforcement Academy. It was years before he became a firefighter. In fact, he had just graduated from high school.

Walker was his defensive tactics instructor.

"He was probably one of the better students," Walker said. "I remember him coming through the academy and thinking, 'This guy is really good.'"

Throughout the years, Walker and Axiotis would see each other out in the field.

After the incident, the first responders would meet again at the gym. The reunion was sentimental for both.

Axiotis, who has a 5-year-old daughter, was moved by the fact that he had saved the life of another father.

Walker has a 6-year-old son, a 10-year-old daughter and two adult sons.

"It was pretty emotional," Walker said, choking up 11 months after the near tragedy. "I was just grateful for what he did for my family."

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©2019 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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