By Dan Campana
In a matter of seconds, it all changed for Belvidere Police Officer Joseph McDermott.
On patrol just before 3 a.m. on March 21, 2017, McDermott went from pursuing a suspected drunk driver to braving the frigid waters of the Kishwaukee River with fellow Officer Ryan Davenport to rescue a woman and child from a quickly sinking van.
Davenport and McDermott will be among those recognized for their acts of heroism when the American Red Cross of Chicago and Northern Illinois hosts its 16th Annual Heroes Breakfast on May 3 in Chicago.
(Belvidere Police Officers Ryan Davenport and Joseph McDermott – courtesy American Red Cross/YouTube)
It started with a call of an intoxicated person leaving a residence. McDermott decided to locate the vehicle, a van, and used lights and sirens in an attempt to make a traffic stop. However, the driver “continued to flee,” McDermott recalled in a Red Cross interview. Dashcam video footage shows the van veer off the road in a park area and eventually into a section of the river.
McDermott parked on the river bank, dropped his gear and hit the water. He quickly realized the river depth would require him to swim out to the van. Once at the vehicle, he could see the van’s front half was already submerged.
“All the windows were rolled up. While treading water, I was able to smash the back sliding window,” McDermott explained. “I told the mother to hand me the baby.”
Davenport had reached the area by that time and heard McDermott call out about the baby. Davenport also can be seen on the dashcam video removing his gear before diving into the river. The van continued to float toward the opposite river bank, so Davenport exited the water to run to the other side to be closer to McDermott.
“He had the baby in his hand,” Davenport said of McDermott who was also trying to help the mother.
Davenport vividly recalled holding the young child by the front of its clothing as he willed himself back toward land.
“I remember I had the baby in front of me and I didn’t want that baby to go under the water,” he said. “It just made me think of my own kids.”
Another officer arrived at just the right moment to take the child from Davenport.
“It was perfect timing because we (Davenport and McDermott) were going under water; it was cold and I was having a hard time swimming (because) I had forgotten to take off my boots,” Davenport explained.
Meanwhile, McDermott was able to get the woman safely to shore as well.
“I just feel lucky I was in the right place at the right time and that me and Ryan were able to pull it off,” McDermott said. “I think any decent person would have done what we did.”
Added Davenport, “We were just doing our job. In the moment, you really don’t think about it. Everything worked out pretty good in the end.”
The pair was recently honored at the American Red Cross of Northwest Illinois’ “Neighbors Helping Neighbors” breakfast. They also received awards and standing ovations at a Belvidere City Council meeting last year.
“Both of these officers put themselves at risk and swam in water 20-foot in depth (in) extreme cold. Their training paid off. Not only did they save the lives of those they were trying to help, but there were able to adapt and overcome to get themselves safely on shore,” now-retired Belvidere Police Chief Jan Noble said in the Red Cross video about the incident, noting the officers spent several minutes in the “extremely cold” water.
Celena Roldán, chief executive officer of the American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois, said the organization is proud to honor the “honor the heroes among us whose extraordinary actions have impacted our communities and inspired us all.”
“From the nine-year-old girl who rescued her whole family from her burning house, to the police officers who saved an infant in a submerged car, to the young father determined to uplift and encourage other young fathers, this collection of leaders has demonstrated that all have the power to leave an imprint upon the world,” Roldán said.
For more information or to purchase tickets to the Heroes Breakfast, call 312-729-6178 or visit redcross.org/chicagoheroes.