An Illinois paramedic is being hailed as a hero after he jumped into frigid water and swam to an SUV partially submerged in a lake and managed to save an unconscious baby floating inside that he initially mistook for a doll.
Todd Zobrist, who has been working as a paramedic with the Highland Fire Department for eight years, realized he didn’t have time to wait for fellow rescuers with wetsuits and a boat so he jumped into the lake, found the 3-month-old in the dark and performed CPR on the roof of the vehicle before swimming back to shore carrying the infant above him, he told PEOPLE.
“One little thing that went wrong may have been a totally different outcome,” said Zobrist, who suffered hypothermia during the rescue. “I don’t know how much longer that baby could have been floating on top of that water before he no longer could have been revived.”
The early-morning rescue of the baby on Thursday came amid a day of tragedy for his family: the baby’s father, Justin Campbell, was found dead in a burned house with a gunshot wound to the head and the lifeless body of his mother, Cristy Campbell, was pulled from the same lake where the baby was found hours after his rescue. A gun was found in her SUV but it is unknown at this time if it is the same one used in the shooting, authorities told the Associated Press.
The baby’s six brothers and sisters, aged 4 to 14 years old, managed to escape the burning house in nearby Glen Carbon, Illinois, and were not physically injured, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Cristy, 32, and Justin Cambell, 37, divorced in 2013 after a reportedly tumultuous marriage that included allegations of domestic violence, according to the Bellville News-Democrat. Police had been called to the home about 50 times for a variety of reasons, according to the Post-Dispatch.
Officials say the sequence of events that lead to their deaths began sometime before 4:50 a.m. Thursday when an SUV was spotted leaving the home where Cristy lived with her seven kids as well as her ex-husband, said Capt. Mike Dixon of the Madison County Sheriff’s Department. According to multiple reports, flames could be seen consuming the home shortly after the SUV left and then several children ran outside. Justin’s body was later found inside.
According to the Gazette, a witness reportedly saw an SUV drive down a hill and into Silver Lake, located about 16 miles away from the house, at 5:30 a.m. Cristy’s body was later found about 11:15 a.m.
Zobrist told PEOPLE that when he and his partner, Ty Barr, arrived at the lake they spotted the SUV in about 5 feet of water and partially submerged, with water coming up to the middle of the windshield. It was about 29 degrees outside and 45 degrees in the water when he jumped in after quickly shedding his shirt, sweatshirt socks and boots, he said.
Halfway there, “I thought to myself, ‘This is a terrible decision and I need to just turn around and go back to the dock because I’m going to get myself in a lot of trouble,’ ” said Zobrist. But, he said, “I was already wet, I was already cold,” so he continued.
Poking his head in though the driver’s side window, he spotted what he at first thought was a doll floating between the second and third rows of the SUV in water that would have been about chin-high on a driver, he said.
“It looked like two feet and two hands,” he said. He grabbed the leg of what turned out to be the baby, who was floating face up but unconscious with about 10 inches of an air pocket above him. Zobrist pulled the baby out of the window and on top of the SUV, where he began chest compressions and rescue breathing, he says. After a moment, the baby coughed out some water.
Though Zobrist dreaded going back into the water to get to shore — “I’m freezing. I’m absolutely in pain all over, muscles freezing up, not wanting to work,” — he said there was no time to wait for additional help or equipment. “The baby was in severe danger,” he said. “He needed to be warmed up immediately.”
So Zobrist plunged back in and did a backstroke with the baby cradled in one hand above the surface of the water until he could stand and walk the rest of the way. The baby was taken to the hospital, where he was treated and later released. All seven children have now been placed with relatives, a spokeswoman with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services tells PEOPLE.
Zobrist was treated for hypothermia and released from the hospital.
Highland EMS Chief Brian Wilson said Zobrist was a hero. “He definitely saved the child’s life,” he said.