Woodlake officer saves boy from drowning

By Reggie Ellis

Seven years ago Woodlake Police officer Joe Echavarria was unable to revive a 2-year-old child who had stopped breathing.

The parents could not afford a crib so they put the baby in a bed and pushed a couch next to it to prevent him from falling off. Instead, the child was caught between them and suffocated. The child was probably already dead when he arrived, but Echavarria administered CPR for at least five minutes.

"That has stuck with me," said the father of three. "That is a cross I've carried for all these years. The passing of any child is tough, especially when you know what it means to be a parent."

It was the last time the officer had to try and revive a child until last week.

Echavarria was the nearest officer when the police department received a call of an infant who had stopped breathing at about 2 p.m. on July 12. He arrived within seconds of the call at the home on Rubra Street near Castle Rock School to find Veronica Gonzalez giving CPR to her 2-year-old son, Pio, on the ground next to their above-ground shallow swimming pool.

"It didn't look good," Echavarria said. "He had no pulse, was not breathing and his face was blue."

Echavarria took over CPR for a few minutes before detective Adam Aguallo arrived to help. Aguallo breathed into the child's mouth while Echavarria handled chest compressions. "I was frantic and luckily he was there seconds later it seemed like," said Veronica, who just graduated from a nursing program. "There was nothing textbook about it. This is my baby!" Echavarria said the boy was fighting to breathe on his own but his lungs were still struggling to take in air.

Finally the engineer Anthony Perez with the Woodlake Fire Department arrived with a breathing mask, followed by the Exeter District Ambulance to transport Gerardo to Kaweah Delta Hospital where two CAT scans were preformed. The results were normal, but there was some concern because he had been without oxygen for several minutes. Because of that concern he was transferred to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Children's Hospital of Central California later that night.

"The doctors said that another 30 seconds and he could be dead," Veronica said.

Veronica said she is not even sure how Pio got to the pool, or in it. She said he was in the house and the sliding glass door to the backyard was locked. She also said the ladder to the pool had been removed and it stood 3 feet above the ground, meaning Pio had to pull himself up that high and over the plastic walls. She searched the entire house before she found Pio floating face down in the pool.

"It is a horrifying experience," Veronica said. "Nothing compares to it except the actual loss of a child. You are powerless. [Officer Echavarria] is our hero. He saved my son's life."

Pio was released from the hospital on July 14, exactly 48 hours after nearly drowning. The next day, his mother took him to the police department to meet the man who saved him. She said Echavarria held the boy while she thanked him for all that he had done.

"Helping to save him really picked me up," Echavarria said. "Every now and then I think about the other one. I know I did everything I could. This has taught me that anything is possible."

Doctors expect Pio to make a full recovery with no long-term effects from the lack of oxygen. Pio turned 2 years old on July 15, just three days after nearly dying. Veronica said she lit a Sacred Heart candle for him for his birthday and thanked God for putting officer Echavarria in the right place to save her son's life.

"He should sleep better knowing that he saved someone's life," Veronica said. "I sleep better just looking at my son. This was truly a miracle."

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