A 2-year-old girl and her mother were pulled to safety after falling into the icy Passaic River Thursday afternoon, rescued by a local police chief who jumped in, risking his own life to save them.
A man was driving north on River Drive in Elmwood Park when he first saw the woman on the ice, walking as she held her young daughter.
"She was holding the baby and walking and I said, what is she doing out there on the ice? Next thing I know they were inside the water," witness Salih Hot said. He quickly called 911 and tried to go in after the mother and daughter, but couldn't get to them.
Elmwood Police Chief Micahel Foligno was sitting at his desk when the call from Hot came in. Within minutes, he was at the scene, but there was no apparatus to use to help get the woman and child ashore.
"The mother was screaming, 'I can't hold her anywhere, I can't hold on anymore,' and I couldn't sit still," said Foligno.
He grabbed a red kayak that a gas station attendant had brought from across the street. He went onto the ice, having to break through it as he clawed his way 50 yards into the frozen river, where the woman was fighting to hold on. It is believed the pair may have been in the water for around 40 minutes.
"She was holding a baby with one arm and had one arm up on the ice to give her some support, but she was not letting go with that baby," the police chief said. "When I got there, I grab the baby but she wouldn't let go, I guess she was in a panic. I pulled the baby into the boat with me, she was listless, unresponsive. I took off my jacket and put it on her ... then I pulled the woman into the boat."
Foligno said he was trying to get the child's body temperature up, and when said "it was a good sound" when he finally heard her cry.
Firefighter Tyler Lewinsky sported a wetsuit and forced his way through the ice to the kayak. He attached a rope to the vessel, and a team on shore worked together to pull the mother and daughter in.
Once they were back on land, EMTs rushed the two to the hospital. The baby's body temperature was said to be in the mid 80s, while the mother was still conscious.
"I can't imagine how they lasted that long, I was out there 25 minutes and I was freezing," Foligno said.
It was not immediately clear why the mother was walking on the ice. Foligno, who grew up in Elmwood, said it is widely known in the town to avoid the river, especially in the winter.