LARGO — The Christmas season brings many gifts, but for two Largo families confronted by the possible death of a loved one, the sweetest gift of all was life. The givers: Strangers who heard a scream and ran toward the sound, not knowing what was wrong, but still ready to help.
Thanks to them, two families remain whole and the stricken individuals they helped survived to see the new year arrive Wednesday.
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Bill Connell, a retired Clearwater police officer, was sipping coffee on his patio the day after Christmas when he heard a scream coming from his neighbor's back yard.
"It was a horrible scream that I heard during the years doing my job," Connell said. "I knew something was seriously wrong."
Connell, 51, ran toward the sound and peered over the six-foot wooden fence that separates his yard from his neighbor's. He spotted Matthew Johnson, a 3-year-old brown-haired boy, floating in a pool and saw the boy's panicked mother swimming toward him.
"I could see he was limp. He was lifeless," Connell recalled. "And he was losing color. He was starting to turn blue."
Within seconds, Connell was over the fence and running toward the little boy, who now lay unconscious on a lounge chair. Connell placed him on the ground and checked his vital signs.
No breathing. No pulse.
He turned Matthew on his side and pushed against his chest, forcing water out. He flipped him on his back and began CPR. Within a few breaths, Matthew regurgitated more water.
Then the little boy began to breathe. Paramedics arrived and whisked Matthew to All Children's Hospital. He was released the same day.
Connell has wondered what might have happened had Matthew slipped into the pool when he wasn't sitting on his patio.
"It was the right place," he said this week. "The right time."
Matthew's parents thanked Connell, who has occasionally called them to check on the little boy.
"Matthew is doing great," said his father, Matthew Johnson. "All of the stars lined up, because the outcome certainly could have been very different. We're all very grateful."
Connell worked at the Clearwater Police Department for nearly 21 years before retiring in September 2012. Now he works part-time as a driver and occasionally as a security officer for Pinecrest Place, a Largo retirement community.
But for Matthew's father, Connell is something else.
"Bill is a hero."
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Bill Burgholzer and his wife prefer the term "angels" to "strangers."
Just before Christmas, Burgholzer, 76, collapsed outside of Hammerhead's Hardware in Largo, where he worked. He had been helping a customer load a 60-pound bag of concrete into her car. Suddenly he collapsed, stopped breathing and turned purple.
Enter the angels: three strangers who heard yelling in the parking lot. For five minutes they performed CPR on Burgholzer. When the ambulance arrived, he had a pulse again and had even said "stop" to the man giving him chest compressions.
"It made me feel wonderful," Burgholzer said. "Some of those angels are standing right there." Andy Tilman, 54, was just doing the job he has been trained to do for 34 years. As a power lineman for Duke Energy, he's required to undergo CPR training yearly.
When he heard the cries for help, Tilman wasn't nervous. He checked Burgholzer's pulse, then gave him breaths as the other two "angels" took turns giving chest compressions.
Laura Walsh was one of them. The South Tampa resident is a physician's assistant at an urgent care center near the hardware store.
"He just looked dead," she recalled. "It was very nerve-wracking. You go to classes. You practice it. It doesn't prepare you for the real situation."
At the hospital, Burgholzer learned that his aortic valve had collapsed. He's now awaiting open heart surgery. He and his wife, Kitty, believe he would have died if not for the angels who stepped up.
Burgholzer spoke with Tilman on the phone and thanked him profusely. "I told him that's just what I was trained to do," Tilman said.
But the Burgholzers don't want to downplay Tilman's actions. "I think that people need to hear, especially this time of year with all the tragedies of what people do to each other," Kitty Burgholzer said. "It's about time somebody does something good for somebody. They saved my husband."
Laura C. Morel can be reached at email@example.com.