St. Anthony fire chief, police officer act fast, rescue child with autism from pond
A young boy with autism is alive thanks to the quick response from some St. Anthony first responders.
St. Anthony Fire Chief Mark Sitarz says the water rescue happened on his way to work on Silver Lake Road in New Brighton. He tells 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS some days at work are more memorable than others.
“I do keep a log of stories over my career, and I added this one to it yesterday,” Sitarz said.
At about 8 a.m. Wednesday, Sitarz was on his way to the station when a woman flagged him down on Silver Lake Road.
“I looked to my right and could see a small boy with a T-shirt, shorts, no shoes, no socks and he was petrified,” Sitarz said.
The little boy ended up running down the embankment and into a pond. His father told Sitarz that his son has autism and he just took off.
“The father turned to me and yelled across the street, ‘Help my son! I can’t swim! You have to help my son!'” Sitarz said.
So without his gear or any special equipment, the chief jumped into action. Not far behind him was St. Anthony Police Officer Braden McNair.
“We had a time of it because you’re sinking into your knees if not more trying to keep the child’s head above water,” McNair said.
After going underwater a second time, McNair and Sitarz successfully rescued that child, who is expected to be OK.
“Risk a lot to save a lot, and there’s a kid out here that we don’t know what’s going to happen if we’re not there to help,” McNair said.
After hearing about the rescue in the pond, the Autism Society of Minnesota was eager to meet these first responders because the nonprofit says this is sadly something that happens far too often.
“The leading cause of death and injury amongst autistic children and adults are drowning-related incidents,” said Ellie Wilson, executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota.
Wilson says often when people with autism are overstimulated they have a fight-or-flight response and can run away.
“Even if you may not understand the risk, you may be drawn to water,” Wilson said. “Unfortunately, many of these stories do not have happy endings, and I am just thrilled to know we had an effective emergency response that saved a precious, precious life.”
Along with access to water safety education, Wilson is working on training with first responders to better understand these situations.
“In other cases, it can be quite confusing with emergency responders who don’t have that kind of training, which is why this is a critically important conversation to bring to fire, to police and to EMS,” Wilson said. “We all can take a role in proactive responsibility in preventing these things from happening.”
In a few months, Sitarz is retiring. He knows while moments like this can be stressful, they’re worth it.
“I have just a wonderful career, and to go out this way is very rewarding,” Sitarz said.