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Police work an emotional journey for officers

Inv. Jeff Hahn hugs Annie Prosser as seven Aurorpolice officers are awarded Medal Valor by Chief Greg Thomas Mayor Tom

Inv. Jeff Hahn hugs Annie Prosser as seven Aurora police officers are awarded the Medal of Valor by Chief Greg Thomas and Mayor Tom Weisner at the Departments headquarters in Aurora on Tuesday, April 30, 2013. Hahn gave Prosser mouth to mouth to keep her alive after she was pulled from the car. | Brian Powers~Sun Times Media

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Updated: June 16, 2013 6:26AM

It was just a couple days after the horrible accident/ heroic rescue that I put in my initial request for an interview with the first responders.

But the officers were still shaken by what went down that evening of March 9 when a car landed upside down in a retention pond off Eola Road. They certainly didn’t feel like discussing that dramatic evening, spokesman Dan Ferrelli explained, when one of the victims had died and the fate of a second was still unknown.

Time passed. And with it came good news. Miraculously, 14-year-old Annie Prosser, who had been submerged in the murky ice-water for close to a half hour, was going to be OK. Soon came news the seven police officers involved in the rescue would be awarded Medals of Valor by the City of Aurora, with firefighters and paramedics to be honored in the fall.

It was after that emotional ceremony April 30 that I asked Police Chief Greg Thomas again about a sit-down with those officers. By now there’s been plenty written about that night. Officer Chris Coronado was on patrol when the call came in that a car had left I-88 and crashed into the water. Investigators Greg Christoffel, Erik Swastek, Ed Doepel and Nick Gartner, running surveillance in the area on a burglary, responded immediately; as did Jeff Hahn and Josh Sullivan, who were just finishing up a drug arrest at the police station.

It was all pretty incredible: Freezing water. Pitch dark night. Car upside down. Children in vehicle. And for the next 25 minutes, heroes in action.

But as I sat down recently and listened to Christoffel and Hahn recount that evening again, what struck me most was how truly uncomfortable they were with that “hero” label.

As soon as they surveyed the situation, “We knew we were going in the water,” said Christoffel, who readily admits he’s no strong swimmer, and that none of the officers had been through any training on water rescues. “But when a mom tells you kids are trapped in a car,” he added, “anyone with half a heart would have done the same thing.”

Emotional toll

It’s not so much these emergency responders are wired to put themselves in danger as they are wired to “not let anyone down,” he said.

As both Hahn and Christoffel recounted that chaotic night in almost minute-by-minute detail, it’s also apparent that, even two months later, the incident has taken an emotional toll on them.

Parts of the evening, admits 35-year-old Hahn and 28-year-old Christoffel, they simply can’t recall. What Christoffel does remember is he and the others in the freezing water desperately trying to slide the car away from the ice; then trying just as unsuccessfully to dislodge it from the mud. He remembers watching Swastek, up to his neck in the cold muddy water, hammering away at the drivers’ window with heavy bolt cutters. Frustration moved dangerously close to panic. The icy water left them shivering. Exhaustion, despite all the adrenalin, was setting in, with lungs burning from the excursion.

And then a cry of triumph from fire department divers: “We got one!”

After Annie was pulled from the water, Hahn and Gartner tripped over each other, falling in the mud as they carried the victim up the embankment. They hung on to her belt loops to keep her wet, limp body from slipping out of their grasp. Hahn remembers staring at the child’s ashen face, her mouth open. He remembers every detail of the black cable necklace with the pretty silver chain that draped across her frail body. And he remembers the iciness of her skin as he placed his mouth on hers, fighting to stay the course as she vomited that night’s dinner into his mouth.

Later, all seven officers stripped out of their muddy wet clothes and put on light blue scrubs as they waited at Presence-Mercy Medical Center, dejected, shivering, second guessing everything that had gone down that night. None had any hopes the young girl would survive; and Hahn became sick himself, throwing up again and again.

It wasn’t until 3 in the morning that the body of the 20-year-old driver, Emory Diaz Sepulveda, was recovered. And the doubt only intensified, as they asked themselves, “Did I leave it all out there?”

Feelings linger

Four days after the accident Hahn was on his way to work when he saw the number for Annie’s dad pop up on his phone. Fearing the worst, he let the call go to voice mail.

“Jeff, it’s Steve. Yeah. Just give me a call.”

And so he did. The test results were in: No brain damage. Annie was going to be OK.

Hahn remembers almost crashing the car in his excitement. He pulled off the side of the road and, freely admits, “I lost it.”

The rescuers visited Annie at the hospital. Three weeks after the accident, she came to see them at the police station. They hugged. They celebrated. But the questions continue to haunt them. Where was Emory when we were in the water? Did we step over her? Were we not fast enough? Could we have done more?

It’s these lingering doubts that make it hard for these Medal of Honor recipients to accept the accolades. Besides, the rescue was an entire “team effort” Christoffel and Hahn insist — from the dispatcher to the firefighters and paramedics to the doctors and nurses.

“Take away one cog,” notes Christoffel, “and the outcome would have been different.”

By the end of the 90-minute interview, it was clear that retelling this story and answering questions had not been easy on these two officers. The bottom line, they wanted to make clear was this: We did our jobs, we could have done more.

So why agree to the interview, I ask, suspecting what the answer would be.

Both pondered the question for only a moment before replying: They want people to know how much first responders depend on each other. They want Annie and her family to know how happy they are she survived, and how horrible they feel Emory did not.

But they also agreed to do the story because they get frustrated sometimes by all the negative stories about police. More than anything, they want us to know they are not heroes.

But they are human.

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