‘Something Took Over That Day’: Louisiana Co-op Worker Rescues Fellow Diner from Choking

Washington-St. Tammany Electric co-op’s Mike Stafford (r) and retired fire chief James Dunaway are now lifelong friends after a lifesaving incident at a Louisiana restaurant. (Photo By: Olander Smith)

The crowd at the 1010 Club in Franklinton, Louisiana, was celebrating the arrival of a traveling memorial honoring Vietnam veterans, but by the end of the evening diners were toasting a heroic act that unfolded before their eyes.

Washington-St. Tammany Electric Cooperative’s Mike Stafford and his wife, Joy, were sharing a table Nov. 14 with six other supporters of the Wall That Heals exhibit, including James Dunaway and his wife, Janene. Stafford noticed that James had an excessive cough.

“The waiters had brought out the first course, and we were making small talk,” said Stafford, the operations manager at the Franklinton-based co-op. “His wife asked him if he needed his inhaler, and he shook his head no. All of a sudden, I noticed he started gasping and heaving and grabbing his throat and his eyes got as big as dinner plates.”

Stafford realized that Dunaway was choking. He remembers jumping out of his chair and running around to the back of Dunaway’s chair to administer the Heimlich maneuver. After that, the rest is a blur.

James Dunaway, 80, remembers the incident well: A small piece of oyster cracker, “no bigger than my fingernail,” had lodged in his airway.

“I stood up and gave the international signal for choking. I felt some arms come around from the back, but I didn’t know who it was. [Stafford] popped me a few times, but I wasn’t getting any air. I motioned to him [to continue], and after a few more times, air was coming.”

Onlookers reported that Stafford sprang out of his chair, flung his napkin over his shoulder and locked his arms around Dunaway’s midsection.

“Something took over that day. I did it and I did it early,” said Stafford. “At one point, people told me that I was squeezing him so hard, that I was lifting his chair off the ground. I kept going until the EMT [on the scene], patted me on the back, and told me I could stop, that he was breathing again.”

After the EMT checked out Dunaway and gave the all-clear, the dinner resumed. Dunaway, a retired fire chief from nearby Bogalusa, said he still suffers from severe injuries to his throat and sinus cavities after inhaling chemical fumes during a railroad tanker car explosion several years ago.

Both men also said they were thankful their jobs required regular safety trainings and refresher courses.

“If it weren’t for Mike, [Dunaway] would have passed,” said co-op board director and local police chief Olander Smith, a witness that night. “Our cooperative isn’t here just to provide electricity…We’re here to help the community in any way we can, even if it means coming to the aid of one of our fellow citizens in an emergency situation.”

A lifelong bond now unites Dunaway and Stafford, who’d rather you not call him a hero. “The real heroes are the ones whose names are on that wall. I would just call myself, maybe, a good Samaritan, trying to help someone in distress.”

But Dunaway says otherwise. “Mike became my hero that night. He could have waited for someone else to step in. He knew what to do and how to do it. He didn’t hesitate.”

Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer at NRECA.