Firefighter’s Actions Save Girl’s Life in School Shooting

"A real active killer. We were dumbfounded, we really couldn't believe it."
March 21, 2018 Updated: September 21, 2018

Having the presence of mind to make a split-second decision during a chaotic event is no small feat. This man’s ability to maintain focus amidst the bedlam of a school shooting likely saved a young woman’s life.

Lieutenant Lazaro Ojeda of the Coral Springs Fire Department in Florida is both a firefighter and a paramedic. He’s been with the city for 14 years.

He was one of the first responders to arrive on scene during the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

He has received approximately 4,000 calls since 2009. But this call he’ll remember for the rest of his life.

Ojeda has responded to gunshot wound calls before. But responding to a call for a child that has been shot is especially difficult.

“The stress of seeing pediatrics injured adds an extra element to our job,” he said.

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(RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images)

Ojeda received the call shortly after 2 p.m. Ojeda teaches active shooter drills at Coral Springs High School, so initially he was unsure if the call was a drill.

“More information kept coming through dispatch, and then we knew it was a real call,” he said.

“A real active killer. We were dumbfounded, we really couldn’t believe it.”

Normally, during an emergency, a person calls 911. Then the dispatcher notifies the appropriate agency to respond to the call.

Under the circumstances, following normal procedure and protocol wouldn’t have been fast and effective enough to help the victims during this mass casualty incident.

Ojeda’s colleague, Captain John Pluchino, realized that the number of calls coming in was affecting dispatchers’ abilities to get first responders to the scene quickly.

Pluchino and his team knew there was an active shooter on the scene,  so Pluchino decided to self-dispatch to get to the school as soon as possible.

Pluchino along with Ojeda, Geoffrey Unger, driver and engineer Will Glover, and Robert Lubinger rushed toward the school.

Ojeda recalls being the third group of paramedics on the scene. He saw a lot of people. There were firefighters from his department and litter-bearers bring patients to them.

A SWAT medic brought a wounded student named Maddy Wilford to Ojeda’s team.

During a mass casualty incident, like a mass shooting, there is a protocol for triage, prioritizing patients, and determining where to transport them.

Normally, pediatric patients are taken to Broward County General Hospital because it is better equipped to treat and do follow-up care with pediatric patients—but Ojeda had to determine her age, her condition, and the best place to transport her.

When Ojeda saw Wilford, he knew she was in bad shape.

“She was very pale. It looked like she had bled out a lot. The first thing that went through my mind was establishing age, and doing a baseline assessment to see what I was dealing with,” Ojeda recalls.

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Ojeda during a news conference following the shooting. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

After the baseline assessment, Ojeda realized how critically wounded Wilford was.

“When we first got her, she was in decompensated shock,” Ojeda said—meaning her body was already unable to keep up with the pressures of blood flow, and she was not responsive.

When treating any patient, determining age is critical.

Ojeda had to elicit painful stimuli and gave her a sternal rub.

He rubbed her sternum to try and wake her up. She didn’t respond.

Ojeda rubbed her sternum again. This time Wilford responded. She told him she was 17.

At first, Wilford was completely unresponsive.

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Wilford during a news conference following the shooting. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Broward Health North is where non-pediatric patients are typically transported. It is approximately 10 miles away from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, closer than the 30 miles it would take to get to Broward County General Hospital.

The information wasn’t relayed to Ojeda and his team at the time, but both hospitals were accepting both categories of patients during the incident.

The situation was chaotic, and the SWAT officer had bypassed the treatment officer and the transport officer, bringing Wilford directly to Ojeda’s team.

That’s when Ojeda made the decision to instead go to Broward Health North.

“When she came to me, I made the determination to take her to a closer facility based on experience and instinct.”

Wilford was bleeding out and didn’t have time to make it to Broward County General Hospital.

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Ojeda. (Courtesy of Lazaro Ojeda)

Time was a critical factor. Wilford had suffered three gunshot wounds from a high-velocity rifle. At the time Ojeda was able to determine where at least two of those wounds were.

“She was shot in her right ribs. When I peeled off the chest seal … I got to see the size of the wound, which was about the size of a dollar [coin].”

Wilford had also been shot in the right elbow.

“Her elbow, the only thing that I can describe is when I go to Publix to buy hamburger meat in one of those hamburger packets, that’s exactly what her elbow looked like, shredded beef.”

Wilford wasn’t perfusing enough for Ojeda to find a vein for an IV. Ojeda and the team started an intraosseous line, which is a needle they drilled directly into her right humerus bone.

Ojeda learned Wilford was not a pediatric patient, and also based on experience and instinct, made the decision to take her to a different hospital.

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In 2015, Ojeda was named North Broward Paramedic of the Year. (Courtesy of Lazaro Ojeda)

Ojeda was then able to reanimate Wilford with fluids and raced toward Broward Health North. When he arrived, he gave a report to the nurse. The ER doctor gave Wilford a blood transfusion. Then Wilford underwent three subsequent surgeries.

Later, the ER doctor that first treated Wilford at the hospital told Ojeda that if he had decided to take Wilford to Broward County General Hospital, she would have bled out.

Ojeda and the team returned to the scene.

The emotions didn’t hit him right away. But when he was returning to the scene, the reality set in.

“I felt sad for the state of the world … the thing that helped me cope was faith in God.”

A couple of shifts later, Ojeda had brought a patient from an unrelated incident to Broward Health North.

An ER doctor, who lives in Parkland, asked Ojeda if he wanted to see Wilford—he did.

The ER doctor introduced Ojeda to Wilford, and he described what had happened. Then tried to lift her spirits with a joke.

“The way firefighters deal with stress is we joke a lot,” he said.

“Thanks to me, you got to meet Trump because this is the only hospital he visited,” Ojeda told Wilford.

Ojeda saw Wilford and her parents before a news conference a couple of days later and was able to speak with them.

“It was just nice to see that it had been a good outcome for their family.”