Cadet William Cruz was walking his mother to her favorite hair salon on Allegheny Avenue when he saw the dying man.
In this neighborhood, William, 17, a master sergeant in Thomas Edison High School’s junior ROTC program, walks his mother to her appointments so he can be with her in case something happens.
And things happen in Kensington. He has seen the victims of the opioid crisis sprawled in the streets. Once he saw a victim of a shooting lying dead. “My heart just breaks in pieces,” he said.
So on this Thursday in February, William walked square-shouldered with his mother down G Street. Past the towering church where, for a time, people in addiction had lived and used heroin in the pews. Past the chain-link fences lined with trash and discarded syringes, and the corner drug dealers, and Carmen’s Grocery and the coin-operated laundromat where, outside, men and women nod out on milk crates.
And then on Allegheny Avenue, there was the man lying on his back on the cracked sidewalk. A syringe between his fingers.
No one was helping. William reached for the man, and his mother reached for William.
“I was thinking he was dead already,” he said. “And my heart was heartbroken, because I knew he had family to go to.”
He kneeled on the snowy ground and saw that the man was breathing — choking, really, but still alive.
“I was thinking, I need to help this guy. I need to do something.”
William lives with his mother, Janet, who takes care of his grandfather, a World War II veteran. It’s William’s dream to follow his grandfather into the Air Force – to be a military policeman or a medic. The breast pocket of his uniform sags under the weight of the medals he’s earned in the junior ROTC.
“He tries very hard,” said his ROTC instructor, Tyrone Garcia, a retired Air Force master sergeant. “Maybe more than everyone else.”
William was born in Puerto Rico and has lived in Philadelphia for 10 years. He’s enrolled in the special-education program at Edison because he struggles with reading – “When I see a word, I see a lot of letters coming inside my mind, and I can’t spell it out,” he said. After work, he and his mother go over his assignments at the dining-room table. He’s making mostly A’s.
And he made first sergeant, the highest enlisted position in his ROTC program. He shows up early to raise the flag for Reveille at Edison, and stays after school to drill.
Last year, on the avenue, William heard about a CPR and Narcan training class at McPherson Square – a 35-minute session in the library basement. He went to learn to help the people he and his mother walk past in the neighborhood.
On the avenue, with the man fading, William began chest compressions and asked the small crowd that had gathered to dial 911. The minutes felt like an eternity. Then he remembered the Narcan in his jacket pocket, and he sprayed a dose up the man’s nose. He kept at the compressions until medics arrived and they revived the man.
An officer thanked him, and a news crew interviewed him. Janet told her son she was proud of him, and they walked to the beauty parlor.
“I was still scared, but I was proud of myself,” William said, “knowing what I did was the correct thing to do.”
At school the next day, Garcia had his cadet walk him through what had happened while he typed up a report, like any good military man. He has since nominated William for the Gold Valor Award, the highest citation in the junior ROTC program.
William says he didn’t save the man because he was brave. It was just the correct thing to do.
“If I did it,” he said, “someone else can do it, too.”