How a team of Wheaton officers saved a woman who fell through the ice
Only the moonlight illuminated the pond at Rathje Park in Wheaton where a 39-year-old woman had fallen through the ice the night of March 5.
The outcome could have been tragic, Wheaton police say, had a passerby not called 911 after hearing the woman scream, had officer Corey White not found a rope in his squad car to pull her partially toward shore, and had officer Sara Niedbala and Sgt. Rob Miroballi not braved the freezing water to carry her to safety.
Temperatures hovered around 32 degrees, and activity in the area was scarce when police were called to the dark, slightly secluded pond just before 11 p.m., Miroballi said. After an initial bout of confusion over the circumstances, officers learned the woman had been chasing after her dogs when she ran out onto the pond and fell through the thawing ice about 25 to 30 feet away from shore.
Niedbala was the first to arrive but had trouble pinpointing the woman's whereabouts, she said. She circled the body of water and was flagged down by the bystander who had called 911.
That's when Niedbala saw the woman about chest-deep in the water, clinging onto the ice and appearing on the verge of hypothermia.
"If it wasn't for the fact that somebody had heard her screaming, I don't know that she would've ever been found," Miroballi said.
White arrived soon after, followed by Miroballi and other members of their team. As they strategized their next steps, White remembered that a rope had been left in his squad car -- something he noticed while inspecting the vehicle at the start of his shift.
Officers tossed it to the woman and dragged her closer to shore, cutting through the ice, which appeared to be painful, Miroballi said.
At one point when she was about waist-deep, the woman got stuck -- and Miroballi and Niedbala soon learned why. As they entered the water in full gear, duty belt and all, they realized a thick layer of mud at the bottom of the pond was creating a suction effect, "literally making it impossible to walk," Miroballi said.
The water was below freezing, but Miroballi and Niedbala hardly noticed at the time. They trudged through the icy pond, pulled the woman from the mud and got her safely back to shore.
By then, paramedics had arrived and were able to get the woman into an ambulance to warm up, Miroballi said, though her primary concern was her dogs.
A bystander found and was holding onto one dog, he said, but first responders feared the second had fallen through the ice and were preparing to conduct a search in the water. They soon learned the dog actually ran a few blocks home and was safe with the woman's husband.
The woman recovered quickly, declined to go to the hospital and was reunited with her husband and dogs.
Water and ice rescues are rare for the police department, Miroballi said, especially given the limited number of ponds and lakes in Wheaton. And though Rathje Park is in Niedbala's typical beat, "you never really think about something like this until it's right in front of you," she said.
The rescue was a prime example of officers not hesitating to prioritize the citizens they serve above all else, Miroballi said, even when they're faced with an uncertain and potentially dangerous situation.
He said the members of the team "are just extremely dedicated to the job and willing to put other people before themselves without a second thought."
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