Rookie Pa. firefighter saves choking child

By Brett Hambright
Intelligencer Journal
Copyright 2007 Lancaster Newspapers, Inc.

LANCASTER, Pa. — Talk about jumping right in.

Just over six months after becoming a Lancaster city firefighter, Bill Bickel had a rare experience.

Bickel, a 37-year-old father of two, was among a crew dispatched Sunday afternoon to 711 W. Vine St. for a report of an unconscious child.

Within two minutes of the 911 call, the engine from Lancaster city fire station No. 6 arrived at the home, and Bickel sprang into action.

He rushed into the house and found 1-year-old Christopher Gorez, who was unconscious after a grape he was trying to swallow became lodged in his throat.

"He was choking," Bickel said. "He wasn't breathing, but he still had a faint pulse."

The residents' efforts to dislodge the grape from Christopher's throat had been unsuccessful.

"So, I said, 'Give him here,' " Bickel recalled.

Bickel placed the child facedown on his forearm and began delivering back blows. By the third or fourth blow, Bickel said, the child started to regain consciousness.

"I heard a wheezing, and bubbles started coming out of his mouth," he said.

A couple more back blows, and the grape came loose.

"He began whimpering and started to cry," Bickel recalled. "I was so very relieved to hear that."

Lancaster city fire Chief Tim Gregg said Bickel's actions probably saved the boy's life.

"In another couple minutes, who knows what could have happened?" Gregg said. "After six minutes (without air), you can develop brain damage or even (die)."

Christopher had swallowed the fruit - a large, red grape the size of a thumb - during a family dinner.

"He had one or two bites, and then it went down the pipe too soon," Bickel said. "I'm just glad my training took over. I thank God I was able to perform."

The incident has made the rookie firefighter popular among his colleagues at the Fremont Street station.

"They are all making a big deal out of it," Bickel said. "I didn't know it was that great of a story."

Thursday, Gregg expressed pride in Bickel, who was one of five city firefighters hired in December.

"It's very, very exciting for us, and especially for him," Gregg said. "He is a brand-new employee. Sometimes, in a 25-year career you don't have the opportunity to save a life.

"Right off the bat, he did a great job."

Bickel, a Mount Nebo resident, said his family inspired him to stay calm Sunday and render care to the unresponsive child.

"Whether it's your kid or not, it hits home," he said. "If you come across a child that is practically near death, you want to perform."

Bickel said he looks forward to continuing a career with the city's fire department that, he hopes, will not often be so dramatic.

"This is a fantastic job, but hopefully I won't have to do anything else like that soon," he said.

"When everything settles down, I'd like to meet the little guy again."

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