Calif. assistant fire chief reunites with boy he saved 34 years ago
Barstow Assistant Fire Chief Sid Hultquist said rescuing Louis Abeita Jr., then 4, from drowning has continued to impact his life over the last three decades
Rene Ray De La Cruz
Daily Press, Victorville, Calif.
BARSTOW, Calif. — Sid Hultquist held back tears as he embraced Louis "Rooster" Abeita Jr., the "little 4-year-old boy" he helped save after Abeita's mother found his lifeless body floating in a backyard swimming pool nearly 34 years ago.
Hultquist, an assistant fire chief for the Barstow Fire Department, reunited with Abeita, now 37, on Monday during an informal celebration inside the fire district's headquarters on Barstow Road.
"This is the young man who impacted my life over 33 years ago," Hultquist told Abeita's family, friends and a group of firefighters who gathered for the event.
Standing next to Medic Engine 361, Hultquist held the station's logbook and pointed to the drowning call on Date Avenue. It was recorded Jan. 29, 1987.
The call and date, Hultquist said, are "permanently engraved" on his heart and mind. They serve as constant reminders as to why he became a first responder.
"I remember holding your limp body in my arms," Hultquist told Abeita, whose eyes were transfixed on the old logbook. "You weren't breathing. You had no pulse, and based on our initial assessment at that time, you were dead."
Hultquist showed the group a framed Desert Dispatch newspaper clipping from 1987 that chronicled the rescue and included a photo of a 4-year-old Abeita sitting on Hultquist's lap inside a paramedic truck.
"This news story was written about four months after the incident when you came by and we gave you a tour of the station," Hultquist told Abeita. "Just you sitting on my lap, I was thinking what a miracle this turned out to be. Angels were watching over you that day."
For more than three decades, Hultquist has prominently displayed the framed article in his office at various fire agencies. He said it motivates him and reminds him why he became a firefighter.
Abeita — who lives in Apple Valley with his aunt, Grace Martinez — said he was too young to remember details from the near-drowning. His gratitude, however, has not wavered.
"If it wasn't for Sid Hultquist and Don Camp, I wouldn't be here right now," said Abeita, a 2002 graduate of Barstow High School. "I'm extremely thankful for them not giving up on me."
Back in 1987, Charlotte Abeita had been prepping for a family trip to San Diego when she discovered her son floating face down in the deep end of the backyard swimming pool, according to the Desert Dispatch report.
She pulled her son's body out of the pool and tried to get him to start breathing as her older son, Vincent, called 911.
Hultquist, 60, told the group he still remembers the call his station received that afternoon of a "child drowning, out of pool and not breathing."
"As we headed off, I realized this was going to be my first pediatric assignment," Hultquist said. He had graduated from paramedic school just two years earlier.
The Abeita home stood fewer than two miles from the fire station. There, Hultquist and Camp performed CPR on the boy.
"There were no signs of life, but Don and I kept working on 'Rooster,'" Hultquist said. "During that time, I kept thinking this boy is a fighter, and he's going to come back."
Later, in an ambulance, the two paramedics continued to work on Abeita while en route to Barstow Community Hospital.
"All of a sudden, we get a pulse and Louis starts breathing," Hultquist said. His smile suddenly widened underneath his bushy, salt-and-pepper mustache. "It was an amazing feeling and a moment that I will never forget."
Hospital personnel treated Abeita. Two nurses and a doctor later accompanied him when he was taken some 76 miles south of the High Desert city to Loma Linda University Hospital.
Pam Mason, Abeita's aunt who lives in Newberry Springs, said she started praying the moment she received word that her nephew had drowned.
"I was so scared thinking that we were going to lose him," Mason said. "Thank God for Sid Hultquist and Don Camp who never gave up on 'Rooster.'"
After the incident, Abeita required therapy for some developmental issues, including "being slow of speech," Mason said. She noted that Abeita's parents and brother have all died since that day in 1987.
Mobile Intensive Care Nurse Lorna Trump, who was on duty in Barstow Community Hospital's ER when Abeita arrived, told the Desert Dispatch at the time that she attributed his survival to several factors — mainly the quick actions of his mother and the paramedics.
During the reunion, Hultquist and Abeita each shared a truncated timeline of the last three decades of their lives. They also discussed their love for food, especially the Barstow-based Plata's Mexican restaurant.
Abeita, a student at Barstow Community College, said he loves soccer and the San Francisco 49ers.
Hultquist, who graduated from Victor Valley High School in 1978 and immediately joined the California Conservation Corps, later served for multiple agencies in various capacities.
Those agencies include the San Bernardino County and Barstow fire departments and three years later with Barstow Fire. In 1991, he started a 26-year stint with the Apple Valley Fire Protection District. He became fire chief there in 2012, retiring in 2017.
Retirement didn't last long, though.
Last year, Hultquist said he was asked to join Barstow Fire again during the department's "growth spurt."
As of Friday, he was the top vote-getter for one of three seats on the Apple Valley Fire Protection District Board of Directors.
On Monday, he called his reunion with Abeita "the highlight of my last 40 years."
"'Rooster,' is such a bright and polite young man, and it was such a pleasure to meet him and his family," Hultquist said. "Today is another day that I will never never forget."
(c)2020 Daily Press, Victorville, Calif.