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updated: 8/14/2013 5:30 AM

Aurora cops, Schaumburg kids honored for rescue efforts

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  • Video: Officers Honored for Rescue

  • Jim Elenz, center, thanks Aurora police sergeants Rick Ahlgren and Daniel Eppard for their rescue efforts.

       Jim Elenz, center, thanks Aurora police sergeants Rick Ahlgren and Daniel Eppard for their rescue efforts.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Illinois Conservation police Director Rafael Gutierrez, left, recognizes Aurora police Sgt. Daniel Eppard for his work with Sgt. Rick Ahlgren to pull five boys to safety from a dam along the Vermilion River.

       Illinois Conservation police Director Rafael Gutierrez, left, recognizes Aurora police Sgt. Daniel Eppard for his work with Sgt. Rick Ahlgren to pull five boys to safety from a dam along the Vermilion River.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Aurora police Sgt. Rick Ahlgren, right, is recognized Tuesday for his work with Sgt. Daniel Eppard in pulling five boys to safety from a dam along the Vermilion River.

       Aurora police Sgt. Rick Ahlgren, right, is recognized Tuesday for his work with Sgt. Daniel Eppard in pulling five boys to safety from a dam along the Vermilion River.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Jim Elenz talks about being rescued by two off-duty Aurora police sergeants after he and his son, Ryan, became trapped at the Buzzi Unicem Dam on the Vermilion River.

       Jim Elenz talks about being rescued by two off-duty Aurora police sergeants after he and his son, Ryan, became trapped at the Buzzi Unicem Dam on the Vermilion River.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Graham Fath of Schaumburg is honored during recognition ceremonies Tuesday at the Aurora police headquarters.

       Graham Fath of Schaumburg is honored during recognition ceremonies Tuesday at the Aurora police headquarters.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Tyler Frederickson, right, of Schaumburg is honored Tuesday during ceremonies at the Aurora police headquarters.

       Tyler Frederickson, right, of Schaumburg is honored Tuesday during ceremonies at the Aurora police headquarters.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Colin Fath, right, of Schaumburg is honored Tuesday during recognition ceremonies at the Aurora police headquarters.

       Colin Fath, right, of Schaumburg is honored Tuesday during recognition ceremonies at the Aurora police headquarters.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Matt Grammas, right, of Schaumburg is honored Tuesday during ceremonies at the Aurora police headquarters.

       Matt Grammas, right, of Schaumburg is honored Tuesday during ceremonies at the Aurora police headquarters.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

 
By Sean Hammond
shammond@dailyherald.com

A kid's inner tube and a bundle of cables.

That's all Aurora police Sgt. Dan Eppard needed in 2009 to save the life of a woman trapped in a dam on the Vermilion River.

He found the items along the riverside after ditching his kayak and searching the shore for anything that might help pull the woman to safety.

But the rescue was bittersweet, because while one of the woman's two companions was able to swim safely to shore, the other drowned.

Since that day, Eppard always is sure to pack a rope when he goes kayaking.

On a sunny Friday in June that rope became a lifesaving tool when he used it to rescue five boys who were trapped at the same dam along the same river.

Eppard and fellow Aurora Sgt. Rick Ahlgren were honored Tuesday in front of the Aurora Police Department headquarters by the Illinois Conservation Police for saving the boys' lives. Mayor Thomas Weisner, Conservation police Director Rafael Gutierrez and Aurora police Cmdr. Kristen Ziman thanked Eppard and Ahlgren, as well as four of the boys, for putting themselves in danger to save two strangers.

Everyone was just happy to have lived to tell the tale.

The dam

"Have fun and stay to the right of the dam."

That's the advice Jim Elenz, a police commander in Niles, had been given before going rafting June 28 with his 10-year-old son Ryan on the Vermilion River in LaSalle County.

But as the duo approached the dam near Oglesby, Elenz realized no one had told them how far to the right they needed to be.

The Buzzi Unicem Dam is a low-head dam, meaning it is completely submerged. When water flows over the structure, it creates a countercurrent known as a boil.

Suddenly Elenz and Ryan found themselves caught between the flow of water over the dam and the flow of the boil back toward the dam. They couldn't move their raft in either direction, and the boil was trying to suck them under.

They waited for 20 minutes, praying for help, as the boil slowly tried to tug the raft underwater.

"This thing's going down eventually," Elenz told Ryan. "Try to float on your back. We're going to have to try to kick out of this."

"When's that going to happen?" Ryan asked.

"Pretty soon."

Elenz tossed his oar into the water, thinking they would have to swim for it. The boil sucked the oar right back toward them, and it disappeared beneath the surface.

Swimming for it is a bad idea, Elenz thought. We won't make it.

After watching the oar disappear, Ryan turned to his father and said, "I'm sorry we're going to die this way, Dad."

Elenz looked his son in the eye.

"We're not going to die," he said. "Someone's going to come down the river, eventually."

Someone did. Twenty minutes later, four boys not much older than Ryan came rafting toward the dam. Elenz and Ryan screamed for help and waved their arms.

The boys -- Matt Grammas, 15; Tyler Fredrickson, 14; Colin Fath, 14; and Graham Fath, 12, all from Schaumburg -- navigated around the dam and paddled against the current up next to Elenz and Ryan.

Elenz handed Ryan to the boys. But as he did, the boil started sucking the boys' raft into the same predicament. They paddled hard against it, but for naught.

Suddenly they were stuck between the boil and the dam, but in the process their raft knocked Elenz's raft out of the boil.

He paddled to shore with his bare hands. When he went to look for help, he glanced back and saw two men who looked like firefighters preparing to throw a rope to the boys.

They were not firefighters. They were cops. And one of them had been here before.

Never off duty

Kayaking toward the dam, Eppard and Ahlgren saw the boys and immediately beached their kayaks.

They used a throw bag to get the rope to the boys and then pulled with all of their might to yank the raft out of the current. It came free and floated a ways downstream before the boys reached the shore.

Ryan suffered mild hypothermia symptoms after having water from the dam crash down on him for 40 minutes.

Elenz couldn't stay awake. Fighting to stay afloat had stolen his energy. But they were alive.

So, too, were the four boys from Schaumburg. But Elenz never had the chance to thank them; they jumped right back on the raft and headed down river.

That changed on Tuesday when all eight people involved attended the recognition ceremony and Elenz got the chance to formally thank the youngsters and the cops.

Looking back on it, he still marvels at how strong the pull of water was that tried to drag he and his son beneath the water's surface.

"I've never been stuck in (a dam) before," he said. "I don't want to go back."

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