PALM HARBOR — Pinellas sheriff's Deputy Holly Tsanakaliotis, 44, has no children in her life. No sons or daughters of her own; no nieces or nephews. But there's a 3-year-old boy who won't forget her. When she met him Wednesday afternoon, he wasn't breathing.
The boy is Cayden Gagnon. According to sheriff's deputies, he and his parents were visiting a relative at an apartment complex on Cypress Pond Road, just west of U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor.
The relative was swimming in the complex's pool with Cayden and another young child about 5 p.m. At one point, while her attention was diverted, Cayden choked on water and sank to the bottom, authorities said.
The sweltering day had attracted a crowd, but it took some time before anybody noticed the near-lifeless toddler.
"There were so many people in the pool," said Tom Jablonski, whose apartment balcony overlooks the shaded pool area. "I just wouldn't believe no one would see him."
Somebody did — a young man who lives in the apartment complex, Jablonski said. He pulled him from the pool and laid him on the pavement. Somebody tried to perform CPR, but it didn't work.
Tsanakaliotis and fellow Pinellas deputy James Piper were serving a warrant at a nearby apartment when they heard about the drowning boy on their radios. Piper drove to the pool. Tsanakaliotis, who was in another area, took off running to the pool.
Cayden was still and extremely pale when she burst through the gate to the pool. A stunned crowd had gathered around him. She said two thoughts went through her mind:
I hope I have enough air after that run for CPR.
That kid's gonna live.
Tsanakaliotis decided that a thrust maneuver to clear the water from his body was called for, not CPR. With Piper's help, she turned him on his side, slid her hand into his mouth to open an airway, and whacked him on the back, twice.
He vomited up a mix of water and partly digested noodles.
"He regurgitated," Tsanakaliotis said, "and he let out this wonderful cry."
After being taken to the hospital Wednesday, Cayden fully recovered from the incident and was released to the care of his mother and father, according to the Sheriff's Office. The relative who was watching him will not face charges, said Pinellas Detective Mark Kolenda.
At a news conference Thursday, Tsanakaliotis and Piper offered demure answers to a throng of television reporters who repeatedly asked them how it felt to be "heroes."
Said Piper, "It's just part of our job. We're trained, we do it."
When Tsanakaliotis was asked what it felt like to know the boy was okay, she gently smiled.
"Goosebumps," she said.
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.