“It all happened so fast that it took a minute to realize what happened,” said Supervisory TSA Officer (STSO) Angel Stephensen as she recalled the lunchtime incident.
Four Salt Lake City International Airport TSA officers were in the briefing room chatting and having a well-deserved lunch break when STSO Chelsie Derby stopped in mid-sentence, stood up, red-faced and leaned over her desk.
“I looked at her and realized she was choking,” said STSO Amanda Cook. “She was clutching the desk, and her face was red.”
Cook took immediate action. Moving to Derby’s side, she quickly hit Derby on the back several times like you would a choking infant. “I’ve had two [kids], and my mom instinct took over,” recalled Cook. But the initial effort didn’t dislodge the food from her throat.
“All I remember thinking was ‘What do I do? I’m choking,’” said Derby. “I felt terrified and helpless.”
When Cook realized the backslapping wasn’t working, she changed tactics, moving behind Derby and started to perform the Heimlich maneuver. The food finally dislodged, and Derby gasped for air. “At that point, I was still scared, but felt hopeful that I was going to be OK,” Derby said.
“Until that day, I had never had to do the Heimlich maneuver, nor did I know I could actually do it,” said Cook. “In that moment, I was just desperate to do anything to help Chelsie, who is one of my best friends outside of work.”
When hearing of the near tragedy, Lead TSA Training Manager Rachelle Neilson wondered if she would be able to assist a choking victim the way Amanda did. “It made me really appreciate that we have quick thinking employees who don’t think twice about helping another out,” said Neilson. “I was grateful the other officer involved was OK. Things could have turned out so much worse.”
Cook added, “After the incident was over and both of our adrenaline rushes ended, we processed the only way we know how — with sarcasm.”
Editor's Note: STSO Amanda Cook received the Utah Patriot Award, a local monthly award that recognizes an employee for exceptional individual effort, leadership, dedication, innovation, composure in a difficult situation and/or sustained superior performance.
By Wayne Carey, TSA Strategic Communications & Public Affairs