Alberto Núñez Gutiérrez doesn’t remember much about the day he had a heart attack.
It was July 19, and the 65-year-old had boarded a plane from Havana to Miami, where his sister lives.
He remembers the flight taking off and reaching cruising altitude. He didn't collapse until the immigration line at Miami International Airport — but he can't recall walking off the plane and making it that far.
“They told me what happened three days later, when I awoke in the hospital,” he said. “I fell, dead, and the boys from the rescue came.”
The “boys from the rescue” were four Customs and Border Protection officers at the airport who performed CPR on Núñez and used an Automated External Defibrillator to revive him until paramedics could arrive.
On Wednesday, Núñez Gutiérrez, sporting a gray pony tail, was there when the four officers — Johan Candelaria, Andrew Checchia, Jairón González and Henry Ulrich — were recognized as Miami International Airport’s 2016 Employees of the Year at the airport’s annual Employee Rewards and Recognition Year-End Gala.
“The fact that they saved a man’s life is extraordinary,” said Dickie Davis, the airport’s public relations and digital marketing director.
Núñez Gutiérrez, who came to the gala with his sister, hugged each man and thanked then for the “second chapter” of his life as the more than 100 people stood and applauded.
For the last 12 years the airport has been recognizing an employee a month. Any of the airport’s 35,000 employees can nominate someone they believe has “gone above and beyond.”
“People forget that sometimes there are very special moments in our day,” said Emilio González, the airport’s director.
It is up to a committee to select the winner, who is then given a surprise party at their job site.
“We have created a culture of thanking people and recognizing people for doing good work,” Davis said, adding that there are so many “unsung heroes” in the airport.
This year alone there were several “heartwarming” stories and each person was recognized at the gala. Here are a few:
▪ In January, a Miami-Dade Aviation Department Landside Officer and a County Regulatory Economic Resources Department employee helped a passenger locate a bag — that contained $10,000 in cash — that he had left in a taxi.
▪ In May, an airline employee helped an elderly passenger that had an accident and soiled his clothes. The employee took the passenger to the restroom, helped clean him up and found him new clothes.
▪ In June, an airline employee and a TSA agent helped reunite an elderly couple after the woman, who has dementia, wandered off and lost her husband. She didn’t have any ID, but the employees were able to find her husband and reunite them before their flight back to France.
But no story was as poignant as Núñez Gutiérrez’s.
Ulrich, who was the supervisor that day, was moved to tears when the man hugged him.
“To see him walking around again is indescribable,” he said.
Gonzalez said that seeing Núñez Gutiérrez again was “the best gift in the world.”
“We didn’t do it for recognition,” he said, saying all of his training kicked in. “We did it for him.”