John Ales wasn’t expecting to save someone’s life. He had just dropped off his last fare of the night when he turned his taxicab toward home, taking a right onto Bourbon Street one block before Canal Street.
There, the usual crowd of people sauntered along just after midnight on Tuesday last week. But Ales spotted one man purposefully running — an unusual sight on Bourbon in the early morning hours. The sturdy, short man in a Chicago Bulls cap ran up behind Aaron Shirley, a college student who had road-tripped to New Orleans with a bunch of Texas high-school friends to celebrate his 21st birthday.
Shirley felt someone punch him from behind. He turned around and traded blows with the short man. A pickpocket caught in the act, thought Ales, who maneuvered his big white United Cab car toward the men, shining his headlights on the scuffle in an attempt to break it up. He blew his horn. The assailant ran into the back seat of a waiting tan-colored car, which sped off.
Ales, 52, opened his door. “You okay?” he said, thinking Shirley could get into the back of his car, they could follow, get a license-plate number and call 911. But when Shirley looked at him and spoke, a river of blood flowed from his neck.
“Dude, you’ve been stabbed in the neck,” Ales said.
Shirley, dazed, looked at Ales and reached for his neck, felt the blood.
“I said, ‘Dude, get in the car!’” Ales said.
Shirley tried to speak, but Ales told him to hop into the cab and put pressure on the wound. “I didn’t want him to speak, because when he spoke, the blood just gushed,” said Ales, who put his foot on the gas pedal and sped toward the Tulane Hospital emergency room, three-quarters of a mile away.
“I had it floored the whole time,” said Ales, who slowed down for intersections but ended up running a few red lights. At one point, Shirley said, “Holy crap. My shirt is covered in blood. Am I going to live?” Ales said he assured him he would.
Shirley said he had his hand pressed against his neck and that, about halfway there, he felt his pulse slowing down. “I felt like I was counting down my last moments,” he said.
They peeled up to the Tulane emergency room, where paramedics rushed Shirley to the back.
Ales looked into the back of his cab. He took a go-cup from his cab’s trash bag and scooped the crease between the seat and the seatback. It filled to the top with blood, he said. He got a stack of paper towels and blotted up an unbelievable amount of blood — all from a cab ride he estimated lasted three or four minutes.
A hospital employee from the back of the emergency room came out and told Ales that they’d stabilized Shirley and were transferring him to the Interim LSU Hospital, commonly known as University, which had a surgeon ready to operate. Shirley had lost so much blood, the employee said, that he likely would have died if not for Ales. If Shirley had fainted or fell on Bourbon Street, even in a crowd, people might have walked by, simply thinking he was drunk.
A member of the hospital staff familiar with the incident said Shirley was bleeding so fast that he might not have survived a five-minute wait for an ambulance.
In the New Orleans Police Department report about the incident, Shirley seemed unsure about what happened.
Initially he said that he was approached by an unknown man in a Chicago Bulls cap who struck him in the face. Then he said that it may have been related to an earlier incident near a French Quarter restaurant, where he and a friend traded verbal insults with a group of men and that he believed it was six men — not one — who set upon him on Bourbon Street.
In a phone interview this week from his Texas home, where he is recovering, Shirley said that the night of the attack his friends had gone to Harrah’s Casino to gamble, but he had been hungry. A man they’d met named Charles, who said he was a rebuilding volunteer, offered to walk with him to a chicken wings place near the corner of St. Louis and Bourbon streets. Outside, they passed a group of young men who hassled them, Shirley said. A fight started and someone from the restaurant came outside and broke it up. He said he wouldn’t recognize everyone in the group, but one man had long dreadlocks, one was heavily tattooed, including a fleur de lis tattoo on his neck, and another was short with a Chicago Bulls cap.
He felt relieved, he said, to be walking away from that hostility. “But then they came back,” he said. Shirley eventually recognized the guy in the Chicago Bulls cap, but, at first, he couldn’t understand why the guy hit him, then ran and jumped into the car.
Ales said Shirley seemed confused after the attack. “He didn’t even know he’d been stabbed,” he said.
Plus, Ales said, the whole thing went by in a blur. And the assailant had punched so fast that it may have seemed like six men.
“The blows were quick,” he said. But Ales saw only one man running toward the victim and only one run back and jump in the car. He’d like to see it again and is guessing that the whole incident was caught on surveillance video, given that it was in the French Quarter. NOPD spokesman Frank Robertson said department detectives are reviewing all evidence and trying to find a way to get the assailant to come forward.
In the days following the incident, Ales hoped to visit Shirley at University Hospital, but he only knew his first name. “I just wanted to see how he was doing,” he said.
He’d hoped he could get the name from the NOPD, but Robertson said that departmental policy prohibited release of the victim’s identification.
The New Orleans Advocate was able to track down Shirley in Texas. At first his friends sat with him in the hospital, Shirley said, but they had to leave to return to work the next day and were hoping he’d be released. Hospital staff thought he might also be able to go, but during tests on his throat, his stitches ripped, he said. He was once again rushed to the operating room.
While his friends were in town, Shirley said he didn’t want to call his parents and worry them. His friends left him money for a bus ticket. But when he woke up alone in the hospital, he called his dad, who immediately drove from Houston and took him home.
Shirley’s wound from the incident starts underneath his chin and runs all the way to his collarbone, he said. His mother, thankful for the cab driver who’d transported her son, had been calling the NOPD, trying to find Ales, but had no luck, he said.
But on Tuesday evening, Shirley himself called Ales and told him thank you. “He saved my life,” Shirley said. “That’s why I’m still here, because of this guy.”