Florida Keys

This student was shot in the face. Three decades later, he recalls ‘a pure miracle’

David Canner, then 15, is cared for by his registered nurse sister, Susan Naso, days after being shot in the face on Nov. 1, 1985 in Key Largo.
David Canner, then 15, is cared for by his registered nurse sister, Susan Naso, days after being shot in the face on Nov. 1, 1985 in Key Largo. Photo courtesy of David Canner

On Nov. 1, 1985, Coral Shores High School freshman Alex Vidal got into a fight with classmate Jay Chew. Vidal was suspended from school the following week.

His buddy, David Canner, decided to ditch class that Monday and spend the day at Vidal’s house. Thirty-one years later, Canner reflects on how that choice almost cost him his life. In fact, he says it’s almost unbelievable he’s not dead.

Vidal accidentally shot Canner in the face with a .45-caliber pistol. The .45 fires a large, deadly handgun round known for its stopping power. But the bullet that shot Canner took a precise route in through his left cheekbone and exited just under his right eye.

“It was a miracle,” Canner said during a phone interview from Manhattan, New York. “I was only in the hospital for four days. Really I was incredibly lucky. The exit wound was the exact size of the .45-caliber bullet when it really should have taken off the whole side of my face. Just a pure miracle.”

The shot didn’t cause any permanent damage, Canner said.

“I was pretty banged up, but nothing too bad,” he said. “It was all meat and bones.”

With the help of his family, especially his older sister Susan Naso, a registered nurse who came down from New York to care for her brother, he recovered. Still, it would be another two months before Canner could return to Coral Shores.

The then-15-year-old and Vidal were playing with guns belonging to Vidal’s father, who was a security consultant and kept several firearms in the house. They also raided the elder Vidal’s liquor cabinet, Canner said.

“We were skipping school from CSHS, there was alcohol involved, and several unsecured firearms in the house that I was shot in,” he said.

Canner said Vidal squeezed the trigger. The gun had a round in the chamber because Canner racked it there. He wasn’t sure whether the bullet was in the chamber before the two boys began playing with the pistol and its bullets, but he was pretty sure it was.

“I said, ‘You need to put it back the way we found it,’ ” Canner said. “So I put a round in the chamber.”

Because of elapsed time, his hazy memory of that day due to the trauma of being shot and the booze pilfered from the senior Vidal’s liquor supply, Canner’s not sure why Vidal got the gun back out after they put it away, but he did.

“He took it back out and shot me in the face with it,” Canner said.

Vidal could not be reached for comment. Canner said he saw him once more the following year, but eventually lost touch with him.

“I never saw him again after that,” he said.

Sadly, Chew, the boy who got into the fight with Vidal — the fight that led to the almost deadly idle time that put Canner in the hospital — died violently in 1993. He and another young man, Jeff Cox, were shot dead in their Key Largo trailer by George Rodriguez, then 21. According to court records, Rodriguez considered Chew and Cox unwanted competition in the local cocaine trade and killed them.

He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 27 years in prison.

Canner moved from the Keys back to his native New York when he was 24. He said he’s had “a lot of ups and downs and fought a lot of demons” in the meantime.

“A lot of it goes back to that incident,” he said.

But life is good now, and it was for the most part after he recovered from his wounds and traversed through the rest of his childhood and became a young man in the Keys.

“I lived down there for some of the best years,” he said.

He credits many people with setting him on the right path. Canner has a successful career as a licensed refrigeration engineer and is a plant supervisor at Columbia University in New York City. Along with praising his parents and siblings, Canner said he’d probably be dead if it weren’t for the Key Largo Volunteer Ambulance EMTs who treated him that day, Doris Kemp and Mark Kruger.

“These people, especially Dorris Kemp and Mark Kruger, demonstrated selfless service and wonderful care,” he said.

They even inspired Canner to become a member of the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department in the early 1990s. Kemp and Kruger were two of his instructors.

Kemp served on the Ambulance Corps for 20 years before retiring and moving to Celebration, Florida, in the late 1990s. She’s credited with helping make the department the respected outfit it is today. She died in 2003. According to her obituary in the Orlando Sentinel, she was instrumental in making the Ambulance Corps one of the first all-volunteer advanced life support ambulance services in Florida.

Kruger went on to have a career in the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. He retired a sergeant. He couldn’t be reached. But he was directed to a Facebook post from Canner thanking him and Kemp, and it moved him so much that he responded to Canner.

“I had no clue you even knew I was the medic. This post made me smile beyond words. Ninety-nine percent for you being a survivor! And 1 percent for remembering and acknowledging Doris and I,” Kruger wrote. “Doris was like another mother and mentor to me. I miss her dearly. But remember, we did what we were trained to do. You are the one who chose to fight and survive, you are the hero!”

Along with his gratitude toward Kemp and Kruger, Canner’s brief service on the Key Largo fire department and his family’s background as first responders has had a lasting impact on him. Before bringing his family to the Keys, his father, who has since died, was a New York City Police Department detective. His brother was a captain on the New York City Fire Department, and his brother-in-law is on the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group.

“My respect and admiration for the people in uniform that protect us daily, and come running when we need them, is immeasurable,” he said.