Chelsea Cunningham

Sundre woman hailed as hero

Q: What do an ex-con, a hot dog vendor, and a rancher from Sundre have in common?

Q: What do an ex-con, a hot dog vendor, and a rancher from Sundre have in common?

A: They’re all being hailed as heroes after teaming up to rescue a toddler who was drowning in an Arizona septic tank.

Just before noon on Saturday, a two-year-old girl was chasing her dog around an open area behind a farmer’s market in Maricopa, Arizona, when she stepped on a cracked plastic cover above a two-metre deep septic tank. The cover flipped open and the child fell down into over a metre of raw sewage.

When the child’s mother started screaming for help, a 27-year-old local man, two weeks out of prison, immediately jumped into the tank, trying to locate the child.

After swimming around for a time, he had to come up for air and a second man who had been selling hot dogs nearby was held by his feet and began to feel around in the muck for the child.

After the child was under water for approximately four minutes, the vendor felt the child’s hair and was able to pull her out. The girl was subsequently handed off to Chelsea Cunningham, who had been at the market and rushed over to the scene when she heard the shouting.

Cunningham, 28, ranches with her husband in the Sundre area and was vacationing in Arizona. The child was not breathing and was described by a witness as being black and purple, but Cunningham — despite having no formal medical training — immediately began performing CPR on the tot.

“I don’t remember a whole lot about after that point. I just know that there are some things that I’ve learned that came in handy,” said Cunningham, a mother of three.

“She just looked done,” Cunningham told a local news station, “But she wasn’t done. She had lots left in her I guess and we just had to get it out.”

After a short time, the child began to breathe on her own, coughed up the sewage water and started crying. At that point, everyone who had gathered around started to cheer.

The child was taken to a nearby hospital and, according to a release from the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, was released Tuesday and is expected to make a full recovery.

According to the Arizona Republic, Cunningham first learned CPR at age 12 and has kept up with it since then, just in case. In an article on the incident, she urged others to learn CPR too.

“It might not be as dramatic as somebody in a septic tank, but it might be somebody choking or it might be a big cut,” she told the paper, “Get the knowledge. It’s cheap and doesn’t take a lot of commitment.”

Cunningham said she grew up with CPR because her father insisted on it.

“It was an influence that I had growing up. There was always a first-aid presence there. My dad was very insistent that it was kept up.”

Jim Cowie, Cunningham’s father, was also at the farmers market. He said things were so frantic it took him a minute to realize his daughter was the one controlling the rescue.

“That was the intensity of the situation. This child did not look like she was going to make it,” he said.

On Tuesday, the county sheriff presented a Life Saving Award to Cunningham and the two other Good Samaritans, with the rescued child and her family in attendance. The sheriff said without the efforts of the three individuals, the child certainly would have died.

Maricopa is located about 50 km south of Phoenix.

— with files by THE CANADIAN PRESS

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