When Erin Cancro dropped off her daughters at school Thursday morning, it hit her just how close she had come to losing her father.
That’s because her dad, Peter Clarke, 61, of Smithtown, had collapsed in cardiac arrest during drop-off Wednesday morning at Trinity Regional School in East Northport— only to be saved by two off-duty police officers, an off-duty firefighter and a school nurse using an automated external defibrillator.
That defibrillator was hanging on a wall within arm’s reach of where Clarke collapsed face-first onto the floor. The emergency responders, Northport Village Police Officer Pete Howard, MTA Police Lt. Alex Lindsay and GreenlawnFire Department advanced life support provider Mario Geddes, all happened to be dropping off their children at the school and were standing within feet of Clarke.
“I was there this morning,” Cancro said, “and I saw where he was standing and I saw where the defibrillator was and . . . I honestly have no words. To me, it’s a miracle that he’s OK . . . At the hospital they explained to me that, had this happened and he wasn’t where he was, he wouldn’t be here.”
Instead, Clarke was in stable condition Thursday at Huntington Hospital, where he was taken by East Northport Fire Department ambulance.
The scene began to unfold just after 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, as children began arriving for the second day of preschool classes.
Howard, whose late father, Robert, was the Northport police chief, said he had just walked into the foyer with his 4-year-old daughter and 18-month-old son when “out of the corner of my eye I saw this man go straight as a board and fall face-first on the floor.”
Howard, 41, a 16-year member of the Northport Police Department, said he ran to Clarke — and immediately recognized him. Clarke, he said, had attended his father’s funeral last year, the two having known each other from dropping off their grandkids on school mornings.
Clarke, a retired mechanic who emigrated to the United States from Ireland as a teenager, had no viable pulse, Howard said.
Howard said he called for the defibrillator and asked someone to call 911. Suffolk County police said they got that 911 call at 8:39 a.m.
Hearing the commotion, the school nurse, Kathy Schildhorn, came running from her office down the hall.
She has worked at the school nine years. Before that she said she spent 18 years as an emergency room nurse at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore.
“Mr. Howard helped position the man,” she said. “Mr. Lindsay got the defibrillator out of the case. Mr. Geddes was taking down vital information.”
Howard and Schildhorn positioned the defibrillator pads on Clarke’s chest — and, Schildhorn said, applied the first electric shock in an attempt to restart his heart.
“You have to wait between 30 and 60 seconds before you can do it again,” Howard said. “It seemed like forever.”
Then they shocked Clarke again, and again nothing.
Standing nearby, Trinity Principal Jeanne Morcone said she turned away, instead trying to focus on keeping arriving parents and their children from the foyer area, as Assistant Principal Patricia Ayers went outside to direct traffic and wait for arriving emergency responders.
“I saw, initially, by the way they were working on him, I thought, ‘This is not good,’ ” Morcone said. “I knew they were working hard and there might not be a good outcome, and I didn’t want anyone to be around if that was the case. I didn’t want the children to see what was happening.”
Then Schildhorn and Howard hit Clarke with a third shock from the AED.
To the surprise of nearly everyone, Howard said, “He just opened his eyes, looked up and said, ‘What happened? What’s going on here?’ “
And then everyone knew.
“I thought, this is a miracle, that’s what went through my mind,” Schildhorn said. “I said, ‘This wasn’t his day. God wasn’t ready for him.’ “
Schildhorn said a defibrillator was so close at hand because of Louis’ Law, enacted in 2002 by Gov. George Pataki.
The law was sparked by the death of Northport High School freshman Louis Acompora, 14, who died in 2000 after being hit in the chest with a ball while playing goalie in a lacrosse game. The law mandates all schools be equipped with defibrillators.
Nevertheless, Howard said he has used defibrillators about a dozen times during his career as an officer — but, unfortunately, had never had a positive outcome. Before Wednesday, that is.
Often, he said, too much time elapsed before he was able to get in position to save a victim. This time, though, he was right there.
“I’m sure any other police officer would have done what I did,” he said. “It’s what we’re trained to do. I’m glad he made it. It doesn’t happen often, that it turns out like this.”
“He’s a very lucky little leprechaun,” Cancro said of her Irish-immigrant father as she headed to the hospital to visit him Thursday. “Very lucky.”
As Morcone, Trinity’s principal, said: “We think there was an angel looking over us. Because everything was in the right place at the right time.”