Soaring Eagle Award Recipient April 2017

Todd Zobrist who is a good father, husband, paramedic and soldier was not yet aware that his years of training was about to be tested beyond anything he has been through in the past. He was on a routine call in the cold early morning hours of March 16th when suddenly the tones sounded.  .  It said, “car in a lake and no one has emerged.. ” Todd said he knew it was bad because “the sound in the voice of our dispatcher said it all”. Fire, Police and EMS were all called out and heading to the scene.  Todd was only minutes away and quickly responded with lights and sirens. When he and his partner arrived on scene they saw a police officer standing in the area of the lake located near the rear of the property. The officer was pointing a flashlight into the murky cold water. Standing on a boat dock that gave view of a submerged SUV that still had its headlights on. It seemed surreal as its windshield wipers were splashing water up out of the lake with each swipe of the blades. Todd immediately understood the gravity of the situation and instinctively began removing any unnecessary gear from his body.  As the tense moments of the situation fully arrived the officer said to Todd, “ well are you going in or am I ? ” At that point whatever uneasy feeling Todd had regarding rescuing someone from this submerged vehicle was divorced from his mind and his paramedic life saving instinct took over.

He walked at first into the shallow three foot water and immediately realized how devastatingly cold this lake really was. He also realized that in order to reach the victims faster he would need to get fully into the water and swim. So, he dove in and swam. The water depth had gone from a few feet at the lakes edge to near six feet at an estimated 100 feet from the shore. Todd stated “ it was so cold it became physically painful, so painful I wanted to turn back ”. He didn’t though. He felt that the only chance these people have “ is for me to continue on, so I did.. ”.  This was without even knowing if someone is acutely in the car. When he arrived at the open window of the driver’s door he couldn’t tell if anyone was in the front. So he reached in while going into the vehicle and felt around, but no one was there. He moved on to the back door and opened it. He reached in trying to determine if anyone was in the second row of this large family size SUV. Todd stated “I wasn’t sure, but maybe they were thrown around and ended up in the far rear of the vehicle”. So, he decided to muster one more attempt and tried looking even further back in the third row. It was near that time he discovered an empty child car seat. He reached all around and near the inside roof of the car he felt what he thought was a toy doll. He stated “ it almost felt frozen or too hard to be a child’s foot ”.  But in those next seconds he grabbed that frozen feeling leg and pulled it to himself. He immediately realized it was a real child. He exclaimed “ my God, it’s a baby ” . Instantly putting his shock aside he pulled the baby from the car and proceeded with the child to the top of the vehicle where he could begin life saving techniques. He started performing the well-practiced training of compressions and  rescue breath ratio for BLS.  Todd states “ it was so cold and I was in so much pain that I was feeling like I had possibly made a choice that may cost me my life.”    So at that point the rounds of BLS got the child to cough and vomit up dirty lake water even though he still wasn’t sure of the child’s total recovery but it was enough to arouse the baby and convinced him that it’s time to get this child out of here. It was at this point that he fully realized that he himself was past his breaking point. His muscles were shaking beyond his ability to control them, the cold was past extreme and his pain reached unbearable. So he yelled out to his partner “where is the fire department?” knowing that they had the boat needed to retrieve the baby and himself from the frigid waters. You see, these two Illinois emergency responders were only minutes away from the scene when this call went out. They responded so efficiently, so fast and without losing a single minute that they were ahead of the rest of the responding units by far. I guess you can call it, being in the right place and the right time.  The officer requested from neighbors a boat, a canoe or floating device to no avail. So todd was left with the dilemma of waiting a few minutes for his fire team or making his way back into the frigid cold water and swim for it. He stated that “ I was in so much pain from the cold that I felt that my only chance may be to just go for it, but I’d better do it now while I still can ”. So with that, he jumped back into the lake holding the baby above the water and stroke over stroke he made his way to the shore using up the last of his energy.

His partner who was well aware of the seriousness of the matter had called ahead for a helicopter transport to meet them at the hospital. He was also at the ready on the shore with a blanket. When Todd arrived with the baby he immediately wrapped him up and ran for the ambulance like a well-trained relay team. The officer aided Todd out of the water and wrapped him in a blanket. Todd was freezing and both he and the officer made their way back to the ambulance.

Treatment had begun for the 3 month old baby in the back of the ambulance  and the ambulance was on its way to the hospital. The baby did make that helicopter.

Because of the actions of his partner, the officer and Todd Zobrist the baby he rescued is still alive and doing well. Todd was given the “ Soaring Eagle Award ”  by P.E.R.S. of Illinois Board of Directors for his heroic and selfless actions that are considered above and beyond the call of duty. We also recognize that partnership with others on this scene made it possible to save many lives that morning.  

In sharing this story Todd thought it important to make sure all of his fellow emergency responders understand one message for sure. He is grateful that it all worked out well for the baby and himself, but the water almost took his life he stated. He was in far past his ability to endure such cold and pain. He felt that his recent training for a marathon might have been what saved him for losing his life that cold morning. He said “ responders to think twice and don’t go into cold water without assessing the risk and equipment needed to stay safe” . In closing, the three who saved this life; Todd, his partner and the police officer had a chance to meet with the family of this baby a few days later. He is doing just fine and Todd got to feed him a bottle until he fell asleep in his arms. – P.E.R.S. News Desk / Staff Reporter 03/21/2017