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Location: El Cajon, California
Date: February 22, 1992


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On February 22, 1992, in El Cajon, Calfornia, friends and fellow construction workers Jim Robertson and Kirk Crossman were using a nail gun power tool to nail boards to a ceiling on a job site. The men were standing on a scaffold, and Kirk was holding his nail gun, when Jim bent down to pick up a board and accidently bumped Kirk from behind. Kirk lost his balance, and, as he tried to regain it, the nail gun in his hand hit Jim and discharged a nail into Jim's chest. Kirk heard the nail gun fire and turned around to see Jim rip open his shirt. He saw a small hole to the left of Jim's sternum where the one-and-three-quarter-inch-long nail had entered his heart.

Instead of calling 911, Kirk and Jim jumped in Kirk's truck and sped to the nearest hospital. Jim seemed to be doing okay until a half-mile into the drive, when he complained of severe neck pain. "I'm going to die," Jim said, then he started convulsing. Jim's head hit the gearshift, throwing the truck into park. Kirk was frightened, knowing he had to get Jim help now. As he hit the gas pedal, he saw a Sheriff's Department car in the parking lot of a mini-mall. Kirk raced across the boulevard's median and screeched to a halt in front of Deputy Lenice Lopez. Lopez took one look at Jim, who was cold and sweating, and she knew he was in critical semiconscious condition.

Lopez's partner radioed Life Flight, but the helicopter was grounded due to fog, so the Sheriff's Department helicopter, ASTREA, was dispatched to the scene. Meanwhile, Lopez tended to Jim. "I saw how fast he was dying," recalls Lopez, "and he needed to fight." Lopez cradled Jim's head in her arms and encouraged him to hang in. She took his hand in hers and told him to squeeze it once for yes and twice for no. "Do you have any children?" asked Lopez. Jim squeezed her hand once. "How many?" He squeezed her hand three times. Lopez told Jim he had to fight to survive for his kids because they needed their father.

Kirk stood by, emotionally distressed. He'd known Jim for several years and had always looked up to him. He was praying that things would work out well for his friend. Lopez was relieved when rescue units from the San Miguel Fire Department arrived, followed by Hartson Ambulance Paramedic Michael McKinley, who recalls that Jim's chest was purple and the veins in his neck were the size of breadsticks due to a backup of blood in his system, a classic sign of a piercing injury to the heart.

ASTREA landed on the scene and the engine was kept running so Jim could be "hot-loaded" to save crucial minutes. "They talk aout the golden hour," says McKinley, "but in this case it was like more the golden minute. He needed to be in now." Lopez said good-bye to Jim, and he whispered, "Thank you." "I was so upset with him," recalls Lopez. "Thank me if I save your life, but not if I don't." As the helicopter departed, Lopez asked McKinley if he thought Jim would live. "It will be a miracle," he responded.

At Sharp Memorial Hospital, Jim was rushed into surgery to repair the hole in his heart. His parents arrived and were told by doctors that their son had survived, but only because the system had worked properly and swiftly. Jim was released from the hospital just fours days after surgery, but the accident has changed his life. Unable now to do strenuous construction work, he must find a new career. But he is grateful to be alive for his children's sake. "I owe my life to everyone who was involved that day," says Jim. "The whole system worked great. These people are heroes."

Kirk says the accident had taught him a lesson. "I'm more cautious on the job site," he says. "But if it ever does occur again, I will call 911. I won't try to be the ambulance and paramedic myself." Jim and Lenice Lopez continue to keep in touch regularly. "Jim and I have a bond that only people who have been in this situation will understand," says Lopez. "I think there was an angel watching over him that day." "She gave me the mental strength to hang on," says Jim. "God sent me an angel when he sent me Lenice."