Emergency responders are the heroes among us -- the ones who save lives every day. But, like other professionals, their heroic acts are sometimes overshadowed by the apparent inaction of a few. In 2009, two emergency medical technicians (EMTs) on a break at a bakery allegedly failed to help a pregnant woman suffering from an asthma attack that ultimately proved fatal. They did call 911 but an ambulance didn't arrive until 11 minutes later.
One of the paramedics was later killed in an unrelated incident outside of a nightclub in Manhattan. The other is on trial for official misconduct and could face up to a year in prison.
People were shocked this could happen -- no one more so than New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg who took to a press conference to share his outrage and disbelief.
"There is no excuse whatsoever, as far as I can see," he said.
Inspired by this real event, we hired actors to play two negligent EMTs and a stunt actress to play a woman in distress. We then rigged cameras on a busy sidewalk in Hoboken, N.J. to capture what unsuspecting bystanders would do when they witnessed paramedics who neglected their sworn duty because they were on a break.
As our stunt actress walked briskly down the sidewalk, heading off to catch the train, she pretended to suddenly feel faint as she reached for her head and then suddenly collapsed. Some bystanders seemed unsure how to proceed, but Carissa Tondorf didn't miss a beat, immediately rushing to the woman's side, even as the paramedics standing just a few feet away didn't move a muscle.
Tondorf immediately started to comfort our actress, telling her, "We're right here, there's an ambulance on the way."
Other bystanders started to stop and they turned to the EMT's for help but quickly learned, they were on their own. "Well I'm on break right now, I can't really do anything," our actor said.
Tondorf's face showed both shock and disappointment as she looked up at our paramedic telling him, "You look so bored about it."
But it didn't take long for her focus to shift back to our victim to keep her comfortable, even trying to cheer her up with a compliment: "Your hair still looks great."
And even when we instructed our paramedics to walk away, amazingly she kept her cool. After we introduced ourselves, she explained why.
"I didn't think I could change them, and I thought I could help her," she said.
'You Can Still Stop and Help Somebody'
When our victim collapsed again, a man rushed over, standing just a few feet back, unsure of how to proceed.
A "What Would You Do" staffer said she was calling 911 and the bystander naturally looked to the paramedics for help -- but their response was not what anyone would expect.
"I mean, I'd love to do something, but I gotta have a break. We've been going for 12 hours," our actor said.
The man shrugged, standing there in disbelief.
Another passerby stopped to see if she could help, but when our paramedics gave their "we're on break" excuse, the woman only responded with "yeah, okay" before turning and walking away.
Moments later, that lingering man walked past the scene again. Both the man and the woman told us later they didn't know what to do. They thought the paramedics knew best how to handle the situation.
During one take, in just five minutes, 32 bystanders walked by. They slowed down, turned to have a look, and then kept on walking. They all saw what they thought were paramedics on the scene and figured everything was under control.
We began to wonder: Would anyone step forward and give the paramedics a piece of their mind?
When we started taping again, we got our answer. As Monique Reid approached the scene, she immediately took it upon herself to tell the paramedics they needed to help.
"There is a lady on the ground," Reid said.
"I just did a 12-to-12, we're off, we get one hour and then we have to go back for another 12 hours," our actor responded.
Undeterred, Reid reiterated, "You're on break, but there's a lady on the ground. You would really stand in front of a woman, on the ground and eat a sandwich?"
She then placed a long coat over our victim and shook her head in disbelief, and said to the crowd, "You've got to be kidding me."
When we instructed the paramedics to walk away, Monique Reid was outraged and dialed 911 before heading off to track them down. Instead, she found us.
"What Would You Do" Host John Quinones asked Reid what she was thinking.
"I just couldn't believe that there was a crowd of people and there is a woman on the ground and there is two people that are supposed to help her and they are not doing anything," she replied.
But what about them saying they were on their break?
"That's scary," she said. "We all have breaks, I'm on break, but you can still stop and help somebody. This is crazy, and if that's your job, then do it."
Over the course of a long and emotional day, hundreds of people walked by our scene perhaps thinking that someone else was taking care of the victim. But most encouraging, more than 40 people did step in, and in their own way helped a stranger in need.
CLICK HERE to watch the scenario unfold on the latest full episode of "What Would You Do".