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He died in an Atlanta airport parking lot. 22 minutes after 911 call, first responders started CPR

A man died in an airport parking lot while waiting 22 minutes for CPR. The airport’s 911 center doesn’t have protocols for providing pre-arrival instructions.

Brendan Keefe, Lindsey Basye

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The busiest airport in the nation has no protocol for providing CPR instructions to 911 callers during life-and-death medical emergencies.

Before COVID-19, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was the busiest in the world. That’s one reason the airport has its own dedicated 911 center. Calls from the airport are answered by multiple 911 centers in four cities and two counties, but all have a policy of transferring those calls to the airport’s Centralized Command and Control Center, or C4.

Thomas Lawson suffered an apparent heart attack in the South Economy parking lot on November 20, 2020. The 62-year-old retired Marine from Flowery Branch, stood up from his car, grabbed his chest, and said to his wife, “something’s wrong.”

Those were the last words Ruth Lawson would ever hear her husband speak.

“He took three very loud gasps of air, spaced apart, and never breathed again,” Ruth Lawson said. Thomas had previously survived heart surgery.

Ruth immediately called 911. She had no idea that another 22 minutes would pass before an airport firefighter would start CPR on her lifeless husband.

“It feels like forever when you're sitting there watching your loved one die in front of you,” Ruth explained. 

Credit: WXIA

Even though the South Economy parking lot is in College Park in Fulton County, her call was picked up by a cell tower on the Clayton County side of the terminal.

Clayton County 911 trains its operators to be Emergency Medical Dispatchers, or EMDs. While the operator who answered the call that morning was not yet a certified EMD, there was one available right next to her who could have provided CPR instructions.

Following policy, the operator transferred the call to the airport’s 911 center after 47 seconds.

‘We don’t have any dispatchers that are EMD certified,” the airport’s 911 director, Augustus Hudson, wrote in an internal email to clerks responding to a records request from 11Alive's investigative team, The Reveal.

“We don’t do EMD here,” Hudson wrote.

Instead of detailed instructions to help her husband breathe again, or to do chest compressions, Ruth was asked a series of questions she called “small talk” while waiting for the ambulance.

“How long have you been together?,” the dispatcher asked Ruth. “Are you from here?”

None of the questions was directed toward helping Ruth save her husband’s life.