Denver International Airport TSA officers save a life

Monday, March 7, 2022
DEN team photo

John Spinelli and his wife Beverley were in the South checkpoint queue at Denver International Airport (DEN) when he started having chest pain. They were catching a flight home to Dallas after spending time with their daughter who lives in Colorado. 

“He tapped me on the shoulder and told me ‘I don’t feel good,’” recalled Mrs. Spinelli.

They reached the travel document checker (TDC) podium where TSA Officer Paul Monaghan processed her documents first, then turned to her husband. As Mr. Spinelli provided his identification, the unthinkable happened.

“I saw the male passenger collapse,” said Monaghan. “I got out of my seat immediately and rolled him up on his side.”  

“I was hysterical,” recalled Mrs. Spinelli, who said her husband hadn’t been sick during their trip. Just days before, John enjoyed a few ski trips down the slopes while Beverley accompanied their daughter on a quest to say yes to the dress. Now she was pleading for help as she bent down to care for her husband. “I kept screaming for someone to help him.”

Spinellis photo
Smiling ear to ear, a joyful Beverley stands behind her husband, John, who is recovering from a heart attack. (Photo courtesy of Beverley Spinelli)

Lead TSA Officer (LTSO) Mark Stephens, working at the adjacent TDC podium, radioed paramedics about the emergency and joined Monaghan and Supervisory TSA Officer Skylar Cook on the floor to assist the fallen passenger.

An experienced EMT, Cook began lifesaving measures by opening the passenger’s airway. Paramedics arrived fast, assessed the passenger and set up an automated external defibrillator (AED).

“Mark and I, with the direction of paramedics, started performing CPR until they were able to get the AED attached to the passenger,” said Cook.

“Skylar and I alternated about every two minutes,” remembered Stephens.

Lead TSA Officer Rachel Wilmoth placed the passenger’s coat behind his head to protect him from further injury while TSA Officer Lisbeth Lopez comforted and reassured Mrs. Spinelli.

All the while, the busy checkpoint continued to operate. “We were able to give the paramedics room to help the passenger by diverting the passengers on one side of the queue to the other side,” said TSA Manager Nahzat Bellagh. LTSO Paul Arreguin Jr. stanchioned off the area and adjusted traffic around the podium.

Cook and Stephens continued CPR between AED shocks, while a second paramedic administered IVs. Once a faint pulse was detected, the Spinellis were transported to University Hospital, where it was believed Mr. Spinelli passed away.

The incorrect disposition was given to Bellagh by paramedics when he gathered information for the closeout report. Imagine the joy at the DEN South checkpoint when it was correctly reported that Mr. Spinelli was alive.

“You rarely ever get to know the outcome,” said Monaghan about medical incidents on checkpoint. “Hearing [the good news] really makes my day.”

From his hospital bed, a grateful Mr. Spinelli credited TSA officers for saving his life. “Doctors told me the people who started immediate chest compressions saved my life,” said Spinelli, choked with emotion.

The lifesaving team reflected on being in the right place at the right time and on their public service backgrounds — Cook with EMT experience and Stephens and Monaghan coming from law enforcement. “TSA is a diverse place. A lot of great people work here,” said Monaghan.

“I want to encourage others if need be, go beyond your comfort zone and [do] not be hesitant to act if you need to,” said Stephens. “It could be the difference between someone living or not.”

A father will be able to take a very special walk with his daughter soon thanks to the actions of these DEN Officers.

“When a passenger tells you her husband has lived because of the actions of our employees and will be able to walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding, it gives me goosebumps,” said Federal Security Director Larry Nau. “This is confirmation we have the best employees in the nation.”

By Karen Robicheaux, TSA Strategic Communications and Public Affairs