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TSA agent leaps over conveyor belt to save choking infant

TSA Officer Cecilia Morales was on the job less than two months when she heard the screams of a frantic mom.

A TSA agent is being hailed a hero after jumping over a conveyer belt to save a choking infant.

Cecilia Morales, 34, had less than two months on the job as a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer at Newark Liberty International Airport when she started hearing cries for help. Working at a security point screening travelers' carry-on luggage, Morales turned around and saw a distressed mother holding her non-responsive newborn.

"My initial reaction was to show her over the conveyer rollers how to turn the baby around and pat the baby on their back," Morales told TODAY Parents. "I saw that she was in distress and nervous, so that's when I made the decision to jump over."

Morales, a trained emergency medical technician (EMT) with 10 years of experience serving communities in Northern New Jersey, says it took her mere seconds to realize she would have to come to the baby's aid. She credits her years of experience for her quick, life-saving decision making.

TSA officer Cecilia Morales credits her 10 years of experience as an EMT for her quick, life-saving decision making.Courtesy TSA

"(Being an EMT) helped me tremendously," she explains. "Timing is everything. It's the key to a better outcome — the key to survival. It's life or death. Time is everything."

Morales performed the Heimlich maneuver on the infant, sharing that it took two attempts to clear the blockage from the baby's throat.

"The first time I did the maneuver on the baby, I turned them around, checked to see his breathing, checked to see if he was reacting, gave him a sternal rub, but he didn't react," Morales said. "So I turned them around and I tried it one more time."

It was after that second attempt that Morales noticed the baby responding, and that's when she knew the infant was going to be OK.

"When he started crying that felt the best, because that's when I knew that his airway was open and his lungs were working," she added. "So I was happy."

Morales said the mom was still in shock, even after everyone realized the baby was going to be OK. "She just broke into tears — happy tears," Morales explains. "She was crying because she was relieved. Of course, the family thanked me, the grandma gave me a hug — they were very grateful."

It wasn't just the family who thanked Morales for saving the infant's life. One of Morales's co-workers, who is pregnant, took her aside and thanked her, too.

"She gave me such a tight hug and said, 'I love you so much, thank you for what you're doing. I want you to come home with me when I have my baby,'" Morales said, chuckling.

Morales said that the gravity of her life-saving actions didn't hit her until days later. In fact, she worked the remainder of her shift after saving the baby's life.

"As an EMT, that's what happens. You can't just stop your day because of one situation," she explained. "You can't celebrate. You have to wait until you get home or you get off your shift for everything to set in. So I just went back to work as normal."

Then Morales started coming across media coverage of the incident, as well as video of the incident. Watching herself in action and reading articles labeling her a "hero" brought the true impact of her efforts into focus.

"That was a 'wow' moment. A 'wow' and amazing moment," she explained. "That's when I was like, 'Wow, you really did do something.'"

Morales said that even though she does feel like a hero now, anyone could save a life or make an impact on a family in need.

"Anything is possible. Anything that you put your mind to — whether it's helping someone else, whether it's your education — you can do it," she said. "If you feel that way, in the moment you'll see a different person the way I did. The way I do. This was my first time watching myself on TV, so it was surreal. It was mind-blowing."

As she prepares to celebrate Christmas, Morales said she's feeling extra grateful.

"I'm grateful for the support and the recognition — that's the most important. One of the best Christmas gifts you could ever get — to be recognized for what you do."