Suburban Heroes: Aurora cop, teachers save family trapped in submerged van
Aurora police officer Ramon Lopez was named his department's February employee of the month after he and two West Aurora High School teachers helped rescue a family trapped in a submerged van.
The three men -- along with the West Aurora High School wrestling team -- were returning from the state tournament in Champaign around 10:25 p.m. Feb. 16, and the people they saved were family members of an Aurora Christian High School wrestler who were on their way home from the same tournament.
West Aurora High School physical education teacher and assistant varsity wrestling coach Ryan Crawford was driving the team's 14-passenger minibus along Route 47 in Livingston County near Pontiac when he told math teacher and fellow coach Steve Wallace that he thought he'd heard someone shouting near the road.
Crawford pulled over the bus on the dark roadside, and they were soon met by a woman and man who appeared somewhat battered and said they'd gotten themselves out of the back of an SUV that had rolled into a nearby river, but others were still trapped. The GMC Yukon had left Route 47 after the driver swerved to avoid a deer, then rolled into a creek.
Lopez, who'd accompanied the team but was driving his own car, stopped when he saw the bus' hazard lights.
While other coaches stayed with the students on the bus and called 911, Lopez, Crawford and Wallace made their back to the van in the river.
Wallace said that while they all would certainly have done their best to help the trapped family under any circumstances, he was happy a trained police officer was with them.
"Once I saw that he was there, I said, 'Ray, let me know what we should do,'" Wallace said.
Ramon Lopez described the trapped family members in the van as an older man who was driving along with his wife, their adult daughter and young adult granddaughter.
The daughter -- Christy Lopez, no relation to the officer -- said they had all gone to Champaign to watch her nephew Noah Villarreal in the state tournament and were on their way back when the crash happened.
Her own daughter had struck her head and was not immediately responsive. It was determined later that in addition to having broken her spine in three places, she had suffered intestinal injuries. The two who had escaped the vehicle despite significant injuries were family friends, she said.
Christy Lopez's mother was in the most difficult position. She was pinned in and had broken her femur, shoulder and four ribs. She stated her legs were numb, Ramon Lopez said.
The others were able to get out more quickly, though Christy Lopez's father fell into the river while exiting. Ramon Lopez stayed with the mother while waiting for further help to arrive and kept her calm by talking with her about the wrestling tournament.
"You don't appreciate how cold the water is at that time of year until you're standing in it for 20 minutes," he said with a laugh.
Christy Lopez's mother was taken by helicopter to a trauma center in Peoria, while everyone else but her father was transferred there after initial treatment in Pontiac.
Everyone has recovered amazingly well, Christy Lopez said. Her mother is still in rehab but hopes to be released before Easter.
Ramon Lopez had a change of clothes with him, and after checking himself for any signs of hypothermia, he proceeded to the Aurora police station for an update on the shooting at the Henry Pratt Co. that had happened the day before.
That shooting -- in which a gunman killed five company employees and wounded five of his fellow police officers -- has left him with mixed feelings about being recognized as employee of the month. He said many others deserve honor for the roles they played in the shooting response.
But Christy Lopez said that, at the risk of sounding selfish, she certainly appreciated the efforts of all involved in her family's rescue.
"Everything was handled amazingly," she said. "I can't say thank you enough."
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