It was a bright and sunny day on Feb. 11, Merl Downs thought he’d go to the bank and maybe meet a friend for lunch.
After drawing out some cash at the Curtice branch of the National Bank of Ohio, Downs, of Reno Beach, called his buddy, Chris Zimmerman, to see if he’d like to have lunch. The pair decided to meet in Pemberville, where Zimmerman lives.
Downs recalls putting his cell phone in his truck’s cup holder, and a car pulling up behind him. And that’s last memory he has of that morning.
As if on some sort of “auto pilot, he drove to Woodville Road in Northwood and pulled into the Circle K , located across from the Woodville Mall.
Security tapes show him sitting in the vehicle for a short time, before getting out and approaching the counter in the convenience store.
Downs approached the counter, leaned over and calmly asked cashier Wendy White to call 911. “He slumped slightly forward, then stood up and reached forward before collapsing,” White said.
Fortunately, among the noontime customers in the store were respiratory therapist Ray Zielinski and Toledo Firefighter Noel Garcia.
Zielinski, who was immediately behind Downs, caught him and helped him to the floor. Garcia, immediately checked Downs for a pulse. There was none.
The pair sprung to action, performing CPR, while White called the rescue squad. “It was all happening so fast,” she said. “Those two men never missed a beat – they dug right, with Noel doing the chest compressions and Ray performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.”
Upon arrival, rescuers shocked Downs with a defibrillator. At the scene, Northwood Police Sgt. Tina Sigler saw the sign on the back of his truck that said “JJ’s Guns & Things” and called the phone number listed for the business.
Though business was technically closed for the day, owner Joe Connelly happened to be there. “He normally doesn’t answer when he’s not open, but thankfully, he did,” Downs said.
The sergeant asked him if he knew Downs. “He told her I was a close friend – like family,” Downs said. “She told him I was in full cardiac arrest.”
Connelly didn’t have Merl’s wife’s number, but he knew their daughter Renee worked at Tony Packo’s, so he called there. Renee immediately called Merl’s wife Sharon to deliver the frightening news.
“I was on the way to see ‘Jersey Boys’ with my sister and some friends when my daughter called,” Sharon said. “I was panicked.”
In the meantime, a resuscitated Downs was taken to Mercy St. Vincent Hospital. “I remember waking up in the hospital asking where I was,” he said. “When they told me I was in the hospital I said, ‘Oh God, I had a wreck!’
“Then I saw my wife and in my mind, couldn’t figure out how she got in a wreck with me,” he said.
Fortunately, after four days in the hospital, Downs left with a new defibrillator/pacemaker, along with a new lease on life. “I’m lucky to be here,” he said. “I feel like I won the lottery.”
He also has no doubt he had a guardian angel – probably several of them. “The doctor explained the lapse in memory as the brain’s way of helping the body during traumatic events,” Downs said. “But how did I make it the whole way to Circle K without getting in a crash?”
He also believes Divine Intervention was at play in other ways, particularly regarding Garcia’s presence in the Circle K at the time of his collapse.
He explained the Feb. 11 episode wasn’t his first go-round with heart trouble. It wasn’t his first go-round with Garcia either.
On Aug. 12, 1992, Downs suffered a massive heart attack. Coincidentally, Garcia was among the emergency personnel who responded to Downs’ Bassett Street home.
“He went back into the records, housed at the Fire Museum, and looked it up,” Downs said.
Recently Downs had the opportunity to meet and thank the Northwood responders who helped him, when he was invited to Northwood’s Annual Firefighter of the Year Banquet.
“It was something he felt strongly about,” said Northwood Fire Chief Joel Whitmore. “Together we made certificates, which he signed and presented to the rescuers.”