Eighteen years ago, a panicked Christine Bavaro ran from her car to a Lynbrook home and implored a man to call 911. Her 3-month-old son Luke had stopped breathing. His face had turned gray.
Volunteer firefighter Joe Rice, a block away on a plumbing job, raced over. He tipped the boy’s head back and gently pressed and lifted his jaw to help open his airways. Then he flicked the baby’s toes to shock his system.
Luke not only survived — he’s now a healthy 18-year-old intent on giving back.
This week, Luke and twin brother Jake were sworn in as fellow Lynbrook firefighters. The brothers said they were inspired by Rice and firefighter Patrick Curran, who was second on the scene on July 13, 1998, and tended to a tearful Jake while Rice was saving Luke.
“If they hadn’t shown up, I wouldn’t have been here today,” Luke said Friday as he and his brother, Rice and Curran gathered at the firehouse where the young men are stationed, jackets emblazoned with their names already hanging from a rack. “As EMTs, we might have to do the same thing.”
Rice, 53, a former captain, said he’s proud that his actions helped motivate the brothers to become firefighters. The teens intend to take EMT training a year from now, as soon as they become eligible.
“It makes me feel good they’re going to get the same type of feeling we got when he took his first breath back there,” Rice said.
Born 10 weeks premature with underdeveloped lungs, Luke and Jake had chronic respiratory problems as infants.
Earlier that day in 1998, Christine Bavaro, now 52, said she and her husband Angelo had taken Luke to his doctor because of labored breathing.
The doctor told them to take Luke home and feed him, but as they drove, the parents became more concerned and decided to take him to Winthrop-University Hospital. En route, in Lynbrook, the baby suddenly stopped breathing.
Rice said seeing Luke revived “was amazing. You see a limp body there that’s not breathing and then you see him take his first breath — it’s overwhelming.”
After Rice stabilized the boy, a police officer arrived with an oxygen mask, and then an ambulance rushed Luke to the hospital. Doctors there discovered that Luke had salmonella poisoning, which had exacerbated the breathing problems. He was hospitalized for more than two weeks.
Word spread through Lynbrook of Luke’s story, and a local newspaper, Lynbrook USA, ran a front-page photo of Rice and Curran holding the infants, with the accompanying article headlined “Lifesavers.”
Luke met Rice shortly after he and his brother applied to be firefighters, but he had no idea Rice was the man who saved his life until another firefighter discovered the connection weeks later. The two shook hands for the first time on Tuesday night.
Luke and Jake have been undergoing training since they first applied to be firefighters shortly after their 18th birthday in April. They will continue their education at the Nassau County Fire Service Academy in Old Bethpage and at the fire station, where Curran may be called on to assist in their training.
Curran, 51, a retired NYPD detective and also a former fire captain, said it’s rewarding to see the young men in firefighter jackets.
“It’s a proud feeling,” Curran said. “It’s like a giveback. You’re able to do something for somebody, and now they are looking to give back to the community.”
Luke said his survival illustrates the benefits of an all-volunteer department, in which firefighters live and work throughout the community and, like Rice 18 years ago, may be down the street from an emergency.
“If when I was not breathing they didn’t have a volunteer nearby, who knows how long it would have been for a call to go out and someone to respond,” Luke said. “It might have been too late.”