Edgewood family relives trauma so others may benefit

January 10, 1994|By Karin Remesch | Karin Remesch,Contributing Writer

The dime-size bullet hole in the blue sofa serves as a reminder of that traumatic day when 3-year-old Christopher Gillespie was accidentally shot in the chest while picking up his father's revolver.

Tomorrow night at 8, when the TV series "Rescue 911" airs the re-enactment of the accident, the Gillespies of Edgewood will be sitting on that sofa watching and remembering the most terrifying moments of their lives.

Reliving those hours of June 23, 1991 -- when they found their son with blood pouring from his chest; the helicopter ride to the hospital; the agonizing wait for Christopher to pull through two-hour surgery -- will be painful but also therapeutic, says his mother, Angela Gillespie.

"Reliving it actually helps us deal with it. We still talk about the accident a lot," says Mrs. Gillespie, 27. "It's not healthy to bury it."

Christopher's parents say they have come to grips with the emotional impact of the accident, but both agree they will always feel responsible for the pain their son had to endure.

"Just one mistake, just one variation from the normal routine, and our son almost died," says Steven Gillespie, 29, a Baltimore County police officer.

Routine for Officer Gillespie meant locking up his gun immediately after getting home and storing the ammunition separately.

"Never, ever was the gun left out," says Officer Gillespie, a gun-safety advocate who says were it not for his job, he wouldn't have a gun in his house.

"Only that one time -- June 23 . . . "

Christopher somehow got shot when his 6-year-old brother, Jason -- aware of the danger of guns -- tried to take the pistol away from him. Exactly what happened remains unclear.

The .38-caliber Smith-Wesson snub-nose revolver had been inadvertently left on an end table in the living room hours earlier, when their father returned home about 1 a.m. from a part-time job as a security guard.

Tired after working his regular police shift and his second job, Officer Gillespie had taken off his shoes and put his gun -- his own six-shot revolver -- on the table.

Relaxing before going to his upstairs bedroom, Mr. Gillespie read the Bible in preparation for Sunday morning church services.

He remembers feeling drowsy and falling asleep within minutes. He awoke during the night, picked up his shoes and went upstairs without realizing the gun had not been locked up.

'Happened so quickly'

The next morning, Christopher found the gun. His mother was in a nearby downstairs bathroom and had left the door open because she didn't like leaving her son unsupervised.

"It all happened so quickly," remembers Mrs. Gillespie.

"I heard a loud crash and thought the children had broken something in the dining room, then I heard Jason screaming, 'My brother is bleeding!' "

When Mrs. Gillespie reached her son, blood was gushing from Christopher's chest.

The hollow-point bullet had blasted a hole through the right nipple, broken a rib, torn through a lung, gone out under the shoulder blade and then lodged in the back cushion of the sofa.

The call for help

Mrs. Gillespie screamed for her husband to call 911.

By the time Officer Gillespie picked up the phone in the bedroom, Jason had already dialed the emergency number from the kitchen.

Officer Gillespie administered first aid until the paramedics arrived.

"Somehow I found the strength to stay calm and put pressure on Christopher's back and chest," he says.

"I couldn't fall apart, Christopher was conscious and watching me and depending on me the entire time -- the hole in his chest was about the size of my fist," he says.

With his father at his side, Christopher was flown by a state police MedEvac helicopter to Johns Hopkins Children's Center, where a trauma team led by Dr. Charles N. Paidas, a pediatric surgeon, saved his life.

Christopher's recovery was remarkably quick, and within a week he was back at home playing.

Today the 5-year-old doesn't mind pulling up his shirt and proudly showing the scar that extends from just under his right nipple to the shoulder blade.

He doesn't seem to remember much about the accident, but still talks about the helicopter ride.

"The helicopter was loud, and I was scared and crying a lot," says Christopher. "My dad was there, too."

Telling their story

"Rescue 911" approached the Gillespies for the right to air their story because gun safety is one of the program's priorities.

"We always like to do educational pieces where the viewers can learn something, and we are especially interested in gun safety issues," said Shawn Laws, a footage researcher for the program in Hollywood.

"Here we had a family who was trained in gun safety, and still an accident happened," said Ms. Laws. "We consider ourselves lucky the family was willing to participate and help others."

Agreeing to have their story told on national television wasn't an easy decision for the Gillespies, who say they were hounded by the media for days after the accident and turned down numerous requests to appear on talk shows.

Helping others

"We knew the accident would be accurately re-enacted on 'Rescue 911,' and the paramedics from Joppa-Magnolia [Volunteer Fire Company] and the doctors at Hopkins would get the recognition they deserve," says Officer Gillespie.

"And if other people can learn from it and just one similar accident can be prevented, then putting the story on television was worth it," says Mrs. Gillespie.

"Unfortunately, we had to learn the hard way -- but we also learned to accept life as a blessing and to cherish it because it can be taken away at any time."

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