JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska —
By 6 p.m., two hours into his afternoon shift at the Polar Bowl bowling alley at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Luis Ruiz was ready to devour a prime steak dinner.
It was the type of hunger that can get a guy in trouble.
“I guess I bit off more than I could chew,” Ruiz said.
Down the alley and a few lanes over, having just finished his first game, Staff Sgt. Chase McFeron, a 673d Civil Engineer Squadron explosive ordnance disposal craftsman, was making his way to the front counter to get another round of bowling.
“At first I wasn’t sure what was going on,” McFeron said. “People choke all the time and eventually cough it up themselves. It was when he ran into the back office, I realized something was wrong.”
At least a minute had passed by the time McFeron got to the counter. He stood and stared with disbelief as another good Samaritan tried and failed to dislodge the chewy chunk of steak.
“A coworker tried to help, but he didn’t know what to do,” Ruiz said. “So then I tried to push against a chair, and it wasn’t working. I tried to keep control, but I lost it.”
At the three-minute mark, Ruiz began pacing back and forth. By this point a small group of people began crowding the counter. Some dialed 911. Others just stood and stared. The clash of pins and balls, synonymous with bowling alleys, was now a hushed silence.
“I knew I had to do something,” McFeron said. “I tried the Heimlich maneuver. I don’t know if that’s what saved him, but I would like to think it did more good than harm. By the end of it I was hoping I didn’t break his ribs.”
McFeron ripped into Ruiz with the strength and perseverance of a young gardener trying to cold-start a lawnmower.
EOD Airmen are trained to detect, disarm, detonate and dispose of explosive threats – and McFeron was determined to defuse the situation.
“I was scared,” Ruiz said. “I was thinking about my whole life. My wife is pregnant right now. I was thinking, ‘what a ridiculous way to die.’ It was just a scary moment.”
“I just happened to beat the crowd,” McFeron said. “There was maybe one other person at the scene before I got there. It wasn’t until after I chased him into the office that people started to show up.”
According to the National Safety Council, choking is the fourth leading cause of unintentional injury death. Both McFeron and Ruiz refused to add one more to that statistic.
“Hopefully anybody would have acted,” he said. “I guess in EOD we are always being put into situations that are challenging and often stressful. Be it an exercise or real-world, we always have to be ready to act.”
Both McFeron and Ruiz believe the ordeal lasted five minutes, though each agree it felt like an eternity. Now five weeks have passed since the steak fiasco.
Ruiz has sworn off steak for the time being, though he jokingly refuses to go vegetarian.
McFeron took a month of scheduled leave to care for his infant son after the incident. And while not in uniform, he’s ready to act at a moment’s notice, no matter the situation.