The 8-year-old Anthony Sukto appeared lifeless in the arms of the first responder who raced past police officer Mark Eakes in the early hours of Oct. 22, 2004, outside the small house on Forest Road in Tillicum, Washington.
Stabbed six times with a butcher knife by his father, who fatally wounded Anthony’s mother, “Anthony was covered in blood,” Eakes tells PEOPLE. “I remember throwing up a prayer. I’ve seen people die in front of me, and he just looked like he was on his way out.”
Live-saving surgery on Anthony’s punctured liver brought him back. Now 18 and starting classes next month at the University of Denver, where he hopes to study business management and music production, Anthony tells PEOPLE how he uses his emotional story of healing and forgiveness to motivate himself and others.
“Whenever I’m going through something hard, I’ll just use it as a reminder,” he says. “You can do this. You’ve been through much worse.”
His lasting impact began with his return to the police and fire station to see those who helped him, forming bonds that have endured.
“The spirit of his willingness to live and be happy is really an inspiration,” says Eakes, 47, now a longtime friend and mentor to Anthony. “There’s not a month that goes by, a week that goes by, that I don’t get to tell someone abut Anthony.”
Adds Jeff Colquhoun, 51, another friend and paramedic on the scene of that tragedy: “Watching Anthony grow and wondering, hey, what is his purpose? – we’re all waiting for that answer. And waiting and watching him blossom is one of the most special things there is.”
Anthony’s father, Tony, was sentenced to 27 years and stripped of future contact with his son. His attorney at the time said Tony was high on amphetamines and hallucinating, and grabbed the knife because he believed his wife and son were possessed by the spirit of his own abusive stepfather.
Adopted by his maternal aunt and uncle, who moved him to Florida and then Texas, Anthony was a well-liked kid who played baseball, football and later the piano. “I never saw any kind of animosity, any kind of despair or negative expression on his face,” says Tim Flynn, 58, Anthony’s childhood baseball coach after the incident. “The personality was all there.”
Though Anthony struggled inside – sadness over the loss of his mom brought fleeting depression, then flashes of anger – his survival, and the belief that he was overseen immediately after the attack by angels, led him to acceptance and peace, he says.
“My story,” he says, “can help encourage people to explore the reasons why they’re here, and to get over the burdens and chains they’re attached to in their lives that are weighing them down.”
It’s a tale he tells sparingly, but with a teen’s purpose and perspective – like when he wanted teammates on a middle-school football team to ignore the odds against them and push toward the goal of an eventual undefeated season.
“It was kind of a big deal,” recalls the coach, Wayne Rushing. “He did whatever he needed to do to motivate the team. And it goes along with his character today.”
Some, like classmate Tristan Smith, were unaware at the time of Anthony’s background. “I wish he’d never had to go through it, but it’s made him into a really awesome person,” says Smith, 18. “His story has definitely helped me more than I’ve helped him.”
Eakes and Colquhoun, too, have bowed to Anthony’s influence. Early on Anthony – who refers to the pair as “big brothers to me” – asked the police officer and the paramedic to be counselors at a camp he attended for kids dealing with loss. Colquhoun and his daughter Brooke, seven years older than Anthony and a close confidante, also became hospital grief counselors.
“Everything that happened with Anthony has shaped how I want to be a nurse and work with children,” says Brooke, now 25.
Says her dad: “Most of the things we see at work are things that shatter your faith. This is one of those things that just reaffirms it: There is a reason why we do what we do, and Anthony is that for me.”
“This has changed all our lives,” he says.
To read more of Anthony’s story, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.
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