Paramedic who rescued baby from lake: 'I thought it was just a doll'

Todd Zobrist swam about 75 feet through the bone-chilling waves to where a sport-utility vehicle was partially submerged


By Curt Libbra
Belleville News-Democrat

HIGHLAND, Ill. — Todd Zobrist and Ty Barr were 22 and a half hours into a 24-hour shift and already out on another call when the page went out at 5:30 a.m. on Thursday — car in the water at Silver Lake.

The Highland Fire-EMS paramedics took off. On the way, they started hatching a plan.

Todd Zobrist. (Photo/Highland Fire Department)
Todd Zobrist. (Photo/Highland Fire Department)

“En route,” Todd actually said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna get in if we have to,’ ” Barr recalled.

“On our way there, I was emptying everything out of my pockets in the ambulance,” said Zobrist.

Zobrist, 31, Barr, 35, and two Highland police officers were the first on the scene.

“You could still see the headlights on underneath the water,” Zobrist said.

A bystander who called 911 was there waiting.

“That person had not seen anyone exit the vehicle,” Zobrist said.

Firefighters, who have special cold-weather water suits and a boat, were also paged. However, their arrival was being held up by a train.

Zobrist and a Highland police officer both went to a nearby dock to overlook the situation. They knew any possible victims did not have the luxury of time — one of them, they determined, would have to jump in. It would be Zobrist.

“I just happened to be the quickest,” he said.

He swam about 75 feet through the bone-chilling waves to where a sport-utility vehicle was partially submerged in about five feet of water.

“It was dark. It was cold. It was absolutely just the worst conditions possible,” Zobrist said.

The 6-foot-1-inch Zobrist said he could have ran out to the car, but opted to swim to save time.

“It’s 75 feet,” he said he remembers thinking. “Suck it up.”

When he got there, the driver’s window was “not intact,” he said. The interior of the SUV had filled with water to the point where there was only about 8 to 10 inches of air space.

He began to visually scan the inside of the SUV, but in the pre-dawn darkness, saw nothing at first. He then stuck his arm inside and began to sweep under the water. He felt nothing.

He looked again.

“At first, I thought it was a doll — a kid’s toy of some kind,” he said.

He strained to extend his grasp far enough to reach the arms and legs he saw floating between the rear rows of seats.

“I was literally reeling to reach that baby’s foot,” said Zobrist, himself the father of two small boys.

He was able to grab hold. He pulled out a 3-month-old boy.

The baby was not breathing, though he still had color.

Zobrist lifted the infant to the vehicle’s roof and began CPR. It worked. The child began to breathe on its own.

Meanwhile, Barr was back on the bank, coordinating with other first-responders and a medical helicopter for when the baby was back on dry land.

But how was that going to happen? Should Zobrist stay on top the car and wait for others to get to him, or should he go back into the 46-degree water and bring the child to shore himself?

“The last thing I wanted to do was get back in that water,” Zobrist said.

Barr was worried, too.

“I was worried about him swimming back. I was worried about him making it back,” Barr said.

But time was working against them. They knew what needed to be done.

Holding the baby above the surface, Zobrist backstroked toward the bank until the water was shallow enough for him to quickly run the rest of the way.

As the frigid water stabbed at him and his muscles tightened with pain, Zobrist began to have second thoughts.

“I was literally thinking to myself, ‘This is a terrible decision,’ ” said Zobrist, who had to have 90 minutes of treatment at a local hospital for hypothermia following the incident.

But he fought through it and made it to shore. He handed the baby off Barr and two Highland police officers, who were waiting. They took the child to the ambulance to warm him and prepare him for transport to the hospital.

In total, the call lasted only about seven minutes.

Police say it was the baby’s mother, Cristy Campbell, 32, of Glen Carbon who drove the blue-gray Nissan Armada, with the baby inside, off Illinois 143 and into Silver Lake. Campbell’s body was pulled from the lake about 1:30 p.m. Thursday.

Campbell’s home at 15 Dogwood Lane in Glen Carbon was ablaze Thursday morning, and Campbell’s husband, Justin Campbell, was found dead inside. He died of a gunshot wound to the head, according to the Madison County Coroner’s Office.

Campbell’s six other children were home at the time of the fire and escaped without injury. All six were placed with relatives, according to authorities.

The baby was reportedly doing well and was expected to be released from the hospital on Friday.

“I feel pretty good, obviously,” Zobrist said about learning of the child’s recovery.

Many people have called the paramedics heroes.

U.S. Rep. John Shimkus honored Zobrist on Friday in Washington. Moments after the House concluded legislative business, Shimkus addressed the chamber to recognize Highland’s Zobrist.

“I would like to commend Todd for his heroic and life-saving actions. It’s a great tribute to Southern Illinois,” said Shimkus, who also ordered a flag to be flown over the U.S. Capitol on Friday in recognition of Zobrist’s efforts.

“I don’t know about that,” Zobrist said of the hero talk. “Just right place, right time.”

Though it was dark that morning, both men believe the stars aligned to show them the way.

“Unbelievable, a miracle — those are the two words that come to mind,” Barr said.

In the meantime, both men will be happy to get back to job they both love.

“Call us if you need us,” Zobrist said.

Copyright 2017 the Belleville News-Democrat

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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