Marine graduation plays a part in saving woman's life on flight to Savannah

Marine Sgt. Derrick Hengst, 23, and Al Solomon, 22, administered CPR to a woman who collapsed Wednesday during their flight into Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport.
Marine Sgt. Derrick Hengst, 23, and Al Solomon, 22, administered CPR to a woman who collapsed Wednesday during their flight into Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport. Photo by LCpl. Sarah Fiocco, special to the Packet, Gazette

Delta Air Lines flight 5446 was about 25 minutes from touchdown Wednesday at Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport, and Marine Sgt. Derrick Hengst was trying to get some sleep.

Hengst, a 23-year-old recruiter at Recruiting Station Nashville, was on the final leg of his trip to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island to see one of his recruits -- Pfc. Christopher Higley -- graduate from boot camp Friday.

He was beginning to doze off when he heard commotion in the row behind him.

"I heard the flight attendant saying, 'Ma'am? Ma'am, are you all right?' so I turned around and this woman was slouched over, almost falling onto her husband," Hengst said Friday.

Seated in the row behind the woman, Al Solomon, a 22-year-old whitewater-rafting guide from western Massachusetts, alsonoticed the situation, which quickly grew dire for the woman.

Both men said the woman appeared to be in her 70s.

"Everyone knew that something was wrong and then the flight attendant asked if there was a doctor on the plane," Solomon said. "That's not something you ever expect to hear."

Like Hengst, Solomon was on his way to Parris Island to see his brother, Pfc. Jeremy Solomon, graduate.

When no doctors stepped forward, Hengst and Solomon sprung into action, carrying the woman from her seat to the front of the cabin of the Bombardier regional jet.

"She was barely breathing and had a very weak pulse," Solomon said. "I'm certified in CPR, so I let everyone know that I was going to administer CPR. It felt like a movie. It's incredibly surreal. Here I was performing CPR on a woman at the front of a plane as it was landing."

With Hengst checking her vital signs, the pair managed to get the woman's pulse back and keep her stabilized until the plane could taxi to the gate, where paramedics were waiting to transport her to the hospital. Depot officials say the woman is listed in stable condition and is expected to make a full recovery after suffering a heart attack.

Kate Modolo, spokeswoman for Atlantic Southeast Airlines, the company that operated the flight for Delta, confirmed the incident.

"Our flight attendants are trained to provide these services, but these two men volunteered to assist," Modolo said.

The woman's name was not released Friday by the airline.

Jeremy Solomon said he and his family were at the depot Thursday when he first learned of his brother's mid-flight heroics the day before.

"It came up at lunch," Jeremy said. "My mom told me that they had an interesting flight yesterday, and I assumed they had gotten some extra food or something."

Then his mother told him what his brother had done.

"I was happy to see my brother regardless, but to see him getting recognized for doing something like this is great," Jeremy said of his brother, who was greeted at graduation by Brig. Gen. Frederick Padilla, Parris Island's commanding general.

Hengst said Solomon deserves all the credit for the incident's happy ending.

"It's what we do," Hengst said of he and his fellow Marines. "I think Al deserves the majority of the (recognition). To see a civilian react like that and stay as calm as he did was really something."

Now officially a Marine, Jeremy Solomon said he'd gladly be his brother's assistant if an emergency arose Friday on the family's flight back to Massachusetts.

"That's one of the things they taught us the few first days here, so if that happens again, I'll be right there to help," Jeremy joked.