Police officers are being credited with saving the life of a Schererville bagpiper with Lake County Pipes and Drums who collapsed Wednesday during a Law Enforcement Memorial Week march in Washington, D.C.
Lito Lemus, 62, a retired captain with the Riverdale Fire Department and a Schererville resident, was checking on other members of the pipes and drums group as they prepared to lead the national Emerald Society March in the heat and humidity.
"It was such a happy occasion," Lake County Sheriff John Buncich said. "They were selected to be the host to lead the parade."
Buncich was just a few feet away from Lemus when he fell to the ground.
Officer Gary Robertson, of the St. Louis County Police Department in Missouri, and Lt. Douglas Goerke, of the Orlando Police Department in Florida, saw Lemus collapse and rushed to help. The two officers did not know one another, Buncich said.
"They realized he was in cardiac arrest," Buncich said. "I can't say enough about these officers who assisted. It was fabulous."
Robertson said he was holding a ceremonial banner for the Emerald Society of Missouri, a group of Irish police officers, when he saw Lemus collapse.
"He falls face first with his bagpipe in his hands, and I just initially thought he had his knees locked, and that it was a heat-related emergency," Robertson, 34, said in a telephone interview Thursday. "I got a bottle of water to him, and I saw that he's blue. I knew it wasn't just heat stroke."
Robertson said that when he realized Lemus was in cardiac arrest, he felt for a pulse and found none. He said he asked someone to retrieve a defibrillator as he began chest compressions. After about five minutes, Goerke, took over chest compressions about the same time someone handed them a defibrillator, Robertson said.
They shocked Lemus and continued chest compressions for another five minutes until an ambulance arrived, Robertson said. Paramedics shocked Lemus one more time before taking him away in an ambulance.
Lemus underwent emergency surgery at a Washington hospital Wednesday night. Friends said he was conscious and alert Thursday.
Buncich described Lemus as "a really personable guy" who joined the county band about three years ago.
"They're a real tight-knit group and everyone is part of the team," he said.
John Dempsey, a retired Riverdale police officer and former member of Lake County Pipes and Drums, grew up with Lemus.
"He was a great firefighter, would do anything for anyone," Dempsey said. "He's very passionate about fire service and pipes and drums."
Dempsey said Lemus was driven in part to join pipes and drums by the on-duty shooting death of Officer William "Wally" Rolniak in 2004. Rolniak was Dempsey's partner.
Buncich and Lake County Sheriff's Department Assistant Police Chief Dan Murchek arranged for Lemus' wife to get an emergency flight from Chicago to Washington to be with her husband and picked her up from the airport Wednesday night, he said.
Buncich said he is thankful Lemus was surrounded by current and retired police and fire officials with emergency response training in his time of need.
"It really was the right place, right time," Buncich said.
Joe Wszolek, of Portage, a former Highland councilman and current chairman of the Porter County Property Tax Appeal Board, was watching the Lake County Pipes and Drugs march when Lemus collapsed.
Wszolek, who was in Washington with his wife for a Realtors' conference and happened upon the march, said Lemus was moving as emergency personnel loaded him into an ambulance on a stretcher, he said.
Wszolek said he's praying for Lemus to recover.
"It was such a moving experience seeing these officers from all over the country there honoring all who have gone before them," he said. "You feel proud for them and grateful for what they do. You know, anybody that's going to stand in front of a bad buy for me, you have my utmost respect. It takes a special person to do that."