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Immigrant saves Rock Hill moviegoer choking on popcorn

Damaris Mendez is a lot of things.

She is the co-owner of El Caribe on Oakland Avenue, working seven days a week making the food from scratch and cleaning the place.

She's an immigrant from the Dominican Republic.

But above all, she says, she is a person who loves Rock Hill, and a mother and daughter.

Sunday night, that family part of her leapt from her seat amid the chops and kicks of "Kung Fu Panda 2" at Rock Hill's Carmike Cinema Seven, when she heard and saw a man choking.

It was Mendez' own chops and tugs that saved the man's life.

"About halfway through the movie, I see this guy, he is gasping for air," she said. "He cannot breathe. There is a little boy with him, the same age as my son right there with me, about 8 years or 9 years."

The man rose from his seat in the half-filled theater, choking and gasping, and headed for the lobby. Mendez could have done what everybody else in that movie theater did - nothing.

But she did not. She told her son to sit tight and rushed after the guy.

"The man, he was turning blue," Mendez said. "I knew he was going to die right there. I could not let that happen."

Somewhere from deep in her memory from more than 20 years ago, when Mendez as a recent immigrant to this country, came the emergency training she received as a foster parent.

In front of stunned people right there in the lobby, Mendez gave the man firm chops on his back to try to dislodge whatever was choking him.

"All the time I was screaming for someone to call 911," Mendez said. "His eyes were bulging. He was about to pass out, I am sure.

"All the time that little boy was standing there - frozen. He was watching and so scared he could not move."

The man still could not breathe, so Mendez, a small lady for sure, got behind this man and, "I gave him the Heimlich."

That is the upward tugging from behind, with a fist in the solar plexus - the Heimlich maneuver.

And this woman who has raised four babies through sicknesses that are part of childhood knew she was successful when out of the man's mouth came a mess and the culprit - popcorn.

The man coughed and finally, after some water and a few minutes, was able to catch his breath.

The manager at the cinema, Travis Nichols, said Mendez' quick action was outstanding.

"She was wonderful," Nichols said. "She did something when that man needed it. A super job. A hero."

The oldest of Mendez' sons, Robbie, was in another movie while his mom was saving the man outside. Afterward he told people about his mom.

"I'm proud of her - she's a hero," said the 15-year-old Rock Hill High student.

Yet Damaris Mendez doesn't consider herself a hero. This immigrant restaurant owner considers herself something else.

"The Rock Hill place I fell in love with, where people ask you if you need a ride when you are walking on the road - that's what I was trying to do," Mendez said. "I want it to stay that way. That could have been my family.

"Somebody needs you, you help somebody."

After Mendez and the man each caught their breaths Sunday night, the effusive guy thanked her over and over.

"I never even learned his name," she said.

Then the man and his son went back into the theater and sat down in the back row. Down the row was Mendez and her 8-year-old son. The guy kept his son close and looked at Mendez with her son and no more words needed to be exchanged.

All watched the end of the movie, where Po - the Kung Fu Panda who is not supposed to be a hero - finds something inside himself and becomes one forever.

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