On May 7, the Upper Keys was in chaos from an all-day manhunt for Daniel Weisberger, the suspect in a murder case that occurred earlier that day. Weisberger was wanted for stabbing his younger brother and father in the early morning hours before fleeing into the community around Executive Bay in Islamorada where the three lived.
In Marathon that same day, Jordi Hortensi had celebrated his 21st birthday at the sandbar with friends and was headed back to Key Largo for a birthday dinner with his mom.
It was only by chance that Hortensi was in the Keys at all.
Before the coronavirus shutdown, he had planned to be in Las Vegas for his birthday. An artist handler for Cirque du Soleil’s show “O,” he decided on a whim to come visit his mom.
“I just decided to come home for one to two weeks because they didn’t think the shutdown would last that long,” Hortensi said. “Now, I’ve been here two months.”
Hortensi happened to be one of the first on scene on May 7. As he passed Executive Bay, Weisberger ran in front of the gate, heading for the highway.
“I didn’t even get a chance to type 911 before I saw him hit the front left bumper and left rear view mirror of a car,” Hortensi said. “He did a flip-and-a-half, like an acrobatic flip, and landed face down.”
The Islamorada native quickly assessed Weisberger’s condition and noticed something familiar.
“You’re usually not supposed to touch someone to ensure no further damage,” he said. “I didn’t see signs of life, so I did a trap squeeze and that’s when I saw his chest moving up and down. I realized he was still alive.”
“His breathing was almost like a growling, almost like a snore — a gasp and a growl,” Hortensi described. “It was coming from his lungs, and his tongue was in the way.”
Weisberger was exhibiting “agonal breathing,” a medical term used to describe a brainstem reflex that sounds like gasping and struggling for breath with vocalizations. It’s often a symptom of severe medical emergencies.
“Agonal breathing isn’t real breathing,” Hortensi explained. “It supplies some oxygen, but it’s the lungs’ last effort to get air in. When I realized Daniel was agonal breathing, I used a jaw thrust to push his tongue out of the way by extending it outward with my thumb. It opens the airway.”
Hortensi is no stranger to acrobatic flips or traumatic injuries either, something that would prove critical to the outcome of the chance run-in.
“When we start working in aquatics, we also have to be trained as Red Cross first responders,” Hortensi said of his occupational training at Cirque du Soleil.
He recalled his first day of first responder training, when Las Vegas Fire Rescue’s Dereck Cox “plopped his 220-pound body on the desk and started making strange noises.” Cox taught his trainees, including Hortensi, what agonal breathing looks and sounds like and what to do when someone presents with those symptoms.
In a Cirque du Soleil show in January, a performer suffered a 20-foot fall and landed on a hard surface, providing Hortensi a real-life opportunity to test his training. Hortensi was one of the first on that scene as well, assessing the damage and stabilizing the patient. The performer survived and is recovering in large part due to the quick response.
“Had that not happened and without my training, I probably would not have been able to analyze Daniel’s condition so quickly,” Hortensi said. “It was textbook.”
On May 7, after Hortensi found himself in the middle of U.S. 1 holding Weisberger’s jaw up to prevent his tongue from suffocating him and keeping his head stable, he realized how vital his training was.
“In the moment, you can’t go to Chapter 3 to restudy what to do if someone is agonal breathing,” he said. “I called the chief (Cox) after the accident and told him had he not taught us that, I wouldn’t have known what to do.”
Cox told Hortensi he was “extremely proud.”
Ariel Poholek, Weisberger’s father, is grateful for all the chance “miracles” that led to Hortensi being there when his son was hit. Weisberger’s doctors told Poholek most patients with his son’s severity of injuries never awake from their coma, due to lack of oxygen for too long.
“Jordi’s story is really amazing,” Poholek said. “He was serendipitously there, and Daniel survived because of his actions. Jordi happened to be there to give him another lease on life. That’s how I see it.”
Poholek was also amazed at the parallels between the two young men. Both were in AYSO soccer around the same time and were “on the field together, probably,” Poholek said. Both families lived in Executive Bay for years, and Hortensi’s mom just moved out in November. She worked at Coral Shores High School, and “knew Daniel well” from school, calling him “extremely smart,” Hortensi said.
“A 60-year-old first responder from Iowa saving Daniel still would’ve been amazing,” Poholek said, “but the fact that Jordi has a community connection with Daniel makes it something more.”
“Jordi wasn’t obligated to help and couldn’t know for sure Daniel couldn’t get up and attack him at that time, but he put his safety second to see if he could help,” he continued. “He’s a brave and courageous kid, and I’d like him to be recognized for that.”
Shy to take the praise, Hortensi instead focused on the slim chances of him being there and how grateful he is for his training.
“It’s a good feeling for sure,” he said. “We have a saying at the show: You don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to your level of training.”
Still amazed, he concluded, “All of this on my birthday. The chances of me being there were so ….” He trailed off as he shook his head. “I like to think everything happens for a reason.”