“I thought it was a kid playing a prank, being stupid,” Portnoy said. It was about 10:30 p.m. when he jumped out of his Jeep Cherokee, yelling.
He found Cooper, 19, with his eyes wide open but unresponsive. He was lying on his side. His arm was tucked beneath a downed power line and fallen telephone lines and tree branches surrounded him.
Portnoy started to call 911, but Cooper’s failure to react and lack of pulse alarmed him. He pulled Cooper off the wire and immediately started chest compressions. And he started shouting for help.
Several people came out of their homes and frantically began dialing 911 but couldn’t get through. Cooper’s friends, drawn by the web of teenagers’ text messages, suddenly appeared.
As Portnoy and others desperately tried to save Cooper, there would be no response from 911 for almost 30 minutes.
Hours after Cooper’s funeral service Thursday, the Fairfax County medical examiner said he died of electrocution, the county’s third victim of the derecho.
There’s no way to tell whether Cooper might have survived had emergency responders arrived earlier. What is known is that 911 call centers in Northern Virginia that night were swamped. The storm had struck with only a few hours of warning and it was far more severe than anyone expected and lasted longer as well.
Power lines fell across the region, as did telephone lines. Cellphone coverage was unreliable. Water treatment plants couldn’t filter water. Roads were blocked, and hospitals switched to emergency generator power.
Falls Church contracts out its fire and rescue services to Arlington County, which also staffs the city’s firehouses. Because Falls Church also abuts Fairfax County, sometimes emergency calls will go there as well.
Someone called Arlington’s 911 center shortly after the storm hit to report an electric wire had come down on Haycock Road, landing on top of an unoccupied car. Because it wasn’t life-
threatening and there was no fire, Arlington passed the request on to Fairfax at 10:44 p.m., asking for assistance.
That night, the Arlington 911 center received 518 calls between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., more than six times the volume of a normal Friday night, officials said. The far larger Fairfax County fielded 824 calls between 10:30 p.m. and 2 a.m., a 415 percent increase from normal. Both call centers were fully staffed but, at that point, neither department knew that anyone on Haycock Road was injured.
All that the people standing in the middle of that street knew was that no one could get through to 911. Portnoy, a Virginia Army National Guardsman who served in Iraq, had been trained in combat life-saving techniques. He and another man who helped him clear Cooper’s airways and traded off doing CPR were able to get Cooper’s heartbeat back, then lost it, then got it back.