Heroes honored for 'miraculous' rescue of 3-year-old on Diamond Lake

  • The Epstein family of Vernon Hills and Crystal Lake resident Scott Sroka were honored for saving the life of a 3-year-old girl on Diamond Lake in Mundelein on June 13. Pictured are Hannah Epstein and Scott Sroka.

    The Epstein family of Vernon Hills and Crystal Lake resident Scott Sroka were honored for saving the life of a 3-year-old girl on Diamond Lake in Mundelein on June 13. Pictured are Hannah Epstein and Scott Sroka. Courtesy of Jamie Epstein

  • A 3-year old girl who slipped under the water near the boat launch at Diamond Lake Beach was rescued and revived. The water depth drops quickly near the launch.

    A 3-year old girl who slipped under the water near the boat launch at Diamond Lake Beach was rescued and revived. The water depth drops quickly near the launch. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • The Epstein family and Scott Sroka were presented with the village of Mundelein's Outstanding Citizen Award for saving the life of a 3-year girl on Diamond Lake on June 13. From left to right are Emma Epstein, Sammy Epstein, Hannah Epstein, Scott Sroka, Dustin Epstein and Fire Chief Bill Lark.

    The Epstein family and Scott Sroka were presented with the village of Mundelein's Outstanding Citizen Award for saving the life of a 3-year girl on Diamond Lake on June 13. From left to right are Emma Epstein, Sammy Epstein, Hannah Epstein, Scott Sroka, Dustin Epstein and Fire Chief Bill Lark. Courtesy of Mundelein Fire Department

 
 
Updated 7/9/2021 10:03 AM

Had kayaker Scott Sroka not forgotten his wrist brace, he may not have been around to notice members of the Epstein family frantically swimming toward the shore of Diamond Lake in Mundelein.

At almost the same time that Sunday afternoon, from a boat hundreds of feet away, the Epstein family decided to call it a day just in time to notice a woman in distress.

 

That Sroka was even there was fate, the Crystal Lake man now says. As was the Epsteins' decision to start heading in at just the right time.

Whatever the reason, the unlikely convergence June 13 resulted in the rescue and revival of a 3-year old girl who had disappeared beneath Diamond Lake's murky surface.

"People need to understand how miraculous this is," said Mundelein Fire Chief Bill Lark, a veteran diver and head of the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System Division 4 Water Rescue and Recovery Team.

Lark was on hand Monday as Mundelein Mayor Steve Lentz presented Sroka and the Epstein family, who live in Vernon Hills, with the village's Outstanding Citizen Award for their "profound and consequential lifesaving actions."

"A lot of times people walk away, people ignore, people move on," Lark said. "But in this case their willingness to act made a difference in someone's life."

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Sroka, 46, has training as a divemaster from the time he lived in Hawaii, but never before used those skills in a life-or-death situation and never envisioned "hero" or "lifesaver" being on his resume.

"I didn't do this for credit," he said. "I did it because it was the right thing to do."

He was in the area that day to see his girlfriend's band perform at the Irish Mill tavern near the southwestern end of Diamond Lake. She was running late and he had his kayak, so he found a boat launch on the other side and prepared to go out on the lake.

"The whole fact I was there was just by chance," he said.

Meanwhile, the Epstein family -- mom, Jamie; her husband, Dustin; daughters, Emma, 16, and Hannah, 22; and son, Sammy, 19, had been boating.

They were coming in for the day when Jamie noticed an anguished woman near the boat launch. Dustin, Hannah and Sammy jumped from the boat and began swimming to shore. Emma called 911 and relayed what was happening to the dispatcher.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It just seemed odd," Sroka said of the moment he noticed the approaching swimmers. Then he heard a woman screaming.

"My baby! My baby!" he recalled. "Everything registered at once."

Sroka had already put his 10-foot kayak in the lake, but went back to retrieve his wrist brace from his car.

Had that not happened, "I would already have been gone," when the Epsteins jumped in, he said.

Sroka said he had seen two women with four kids sitting in shallow water at the boat launch, where there is a quick drop off. He began feeling his way along the murky bottom about 5 feet from shore, in water about 3-feet deep.

"I knew where the kids had been when I got in," he said. "I felt her body with my foot."

When he lifted the girl out, her lips were purple and her skin gray.

"She was gone. She had checked out," according to Sroka. "I started (chest) compressions immediately and mouth-to-mouth." Her eyes slowly began to open and she coughed up water. Paramedics arrived soon after.

"It all happened so fast," said Hannah Epstein, who was honored for her part in the rescue.

"Scott was the main hero here -- he did all the CPR. I stepped in to assist him," she added. "Me and my family helped out but Scott was the main man."

Sroka said everyone worked as a team to save the girl.

"All that mattered to me is that I was able to hold the little girl and see she was OK," he said.

The mother of the little girl declined to speak about the rescue, but they attended the ceremony to honor the heroes.

"Our community is thankful and obviously the child's family is thankful, but applause just isn't enough," Lentz said.

• Do you know any Suburban Heroes? Share your story at heroes@dailyherald.com.

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