Neighbors were pretty sure the man on the street had died.
There was a loud noise, and Alphonso and Deborah Williams ran out of their home near the Potomac Avenue Metro Station in Southeast Washington last week to see what had happened. What they saw was alarming: a man, sitting motionless in the driver’s seat of a car that had crashed into several parked vehicles.
For the next agonizing five minutes or so, the Williamses watched as the neighborhood came together to try to save the man’s life, taking turns performing CPR and calling 911. An ambulance soon arrived, and the apparently still-unconscious driver was wheeled away. The Williamses prayed and wondered.
A week later, a sign appeared near the site of the accident.
“Good Samaritans of Potomac Ave — You Saved My Life!” reads the sign, tied to a tree trunk. “I passed out from a heart attack while driving near here. … My doctor said your quick, immediate, steady CPR action saved me."
It concludes: “Today, I am recovering back home. Forever Grateful, Joe.”
Police declined to identify Joe, and The Washington Post couldn’t immediately locate him for comment. While neighbors say they don’t know much about him, the Potomac Avenue community is celebrating the fact that he is alive.
Someone snapped a picture of the sign on the tree, and it swiftly went around social media. D.C. residents speculated about the identity of “Joe” and what might have happened — while some nearby homeowners took to Twitter to voice pride in their neighborhood.
For the Williamses, who have lived on Potomac Avenue for 35 years, the outcome was proof of divine intervention.
“You know, the amazing thing about this is that we witnessed a miracle, because he had certainly deceased,” said Alphonso Williams, 69, who is retired.
Deborah Williams, 67, thanked God and her neighbors: “Everybody was out there, we were all concerned — it was definitely a collective effort between prayers and CPR.”
The Williamses were watching Netflix and eating vanilla ice cream the evening of Aug. 12 when they heard a “big bang,” Deborah Williams said. Alphonso Williams told his wife it sounded like someone had hit both their cars, which they keep parked on the street, so the couple headed outside to investigate.
That is when they spotted Joe. He appeared to have hit Alphonso Williams’s car and then “bounced off,” Alphonso Williams said, leaving his vehicle angled diagonally toward the middle of the street — with Joe unconscious behind the wheel.
Other neighbors spilled out of their houses. The group, roughly 20 to 30 people, according to Deborah Williams, tried to talk to Joe, but he was unresponsive. When Joe’s breathing stopped, neighbors sprang into action, removing him from the vehicle and placing him on the ground.
As the seconds ticked on, Joe’s color began to change.
“I have never seen that, and I have seen things, because I work around Vietnam veterans,” said Deborah Williams, who works for Vietnam Veterans of America. “To see the guy — first he was breathing, then he wasn’t, then he was turning blue — I’ve never been a part of that.”
While someone phoned emergency services, others realized they had to take immediate action. Deborah Williams volunteered to start CPR. Then a voice rang out that someone in the crowd was a nurse.
The nurse stepped forward and knelt by Joe’s side to begin chest compressions. For the next several minutes — which felt like hours to the Williamses — she “just kept counting and pushing and counting and pushing,” Deborah Williams recalled.
It was hot, and the nurse started sweating almost immediately, Deborah Williams said. When she grew tired, another neighbor stepped in to take over for a few rounds. Deborah Williams ran inside to grab the nurse a bottle of water after she finished.
Joe was lucky: Only about half of Americans say they know how to perform CPR, according to a nationally representative survey conducted by the Cleveland Clinic in 2017. Yet bystander CPR doubles the chances of survival for someone who goes into cardiac arrest outside the hospital, according to research published in 2019.
As the nurse labored away, others in the group started praying, Alphonso Williams said.
“People were talking to him, you know, or praying, saying, ‘Please help him, Lord,’ ” Alphonso Williams said.
Then the ambulance arrived. Before Joe was loaded into the vehicle and taken away to a hospital, Deborah Williams said, she saw his eyelashes flutter.
She took that as a good sign. But for the next week or so, the Williamses had no clue as to Joe’s fate.
Deborah Williams spent at least one sleepless night thinking about the man and hoping he was doing okay. Alphonso Williams tried calling the hospital, to no avail.
Then, on Monday, Alphonso Williams walked outside his house and saw the sign. He immediately phoned his wife, who was at work. Both were elated and relieved — and said they appreciated Joe’s kind way of saying thanks.
The car Joe hit, Alphonso Williams’s black 2005 Mitsubishi, was totaled. The couple couldn’t care less.
“We can get another car,” Deborah Williams said.
The Williamses are thrilled Joe is alive and grateful for their community.
“This is a great neighborhood — you wake up on a snow day, and your front is clean. We have good neighbors,” Deborah Williams said.
Alphonso Williams agreed. “When there’s an accident, they will always pull together.”