‘It makes my heart hurt’: Salt Lake officers recount dramatic water rescue
Letter to mayor says actions reflect officers who love community despite current political climate
SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake police officer Kris Smith was the third officer to arrive at the Jordan River canal where a child was trapped in a car underwater.
He arrived just as a Salt Lake firefighter was carrying 15-year-old Justin Bates to shore.
“He was not breathing. There were no signs of life. I started CPR on him and kept doing CPR until another firetruck showed up,” Smith recalled.
He then went back into the dark, murky water to help find a 2-year-old girl still trapped in the vehicle. When a Salt Lake firefighter found the girl and brought her to the surface, he handed the girl to Smith, who took her to the canal bank and handed her off to medical crews.
Smith knows that all first responders on scene that night gave the victims their best possible chance for survival. And because of the hours of training police undergo, he was prepared physically to handle the chaotic situation.
But nothing could have prepared him mentally for what he encountered that night.
“Especially with kids, there’s no training that can prepare you for dealing with kids who are sick and injured. That hits way closer to home,” said Smith, who still had emotion in his voice as he recalled the crash and rescue operation two days later.
“It makes my heart hurt. This hits a lot closer to home than any of the other calls in 12 years I’ve done.”
Salt Lake police officer R.T., who was also on scene that night, concurred that for as many times as she’s played the “what if” game in her head about the types of scenarios she may be called to, “Nothing prepares you to save a kid in an underwater car.”
The Deseret News talked to several officers who were involved in the dramatic rescue on Saturday of Justin and the 2-year-old girl. Justin was transported to a hospital but later died from his injuries.
But police say they did everything they possibly could to save the children.
The accident happened about 11 p.m. near Indiana Avenue and Delong Street. A 20-year-old woman driving a Dodge Caliber was headed west on Indiana Avenue and attempted to make a right turn onto Delong when she missed the curve and went into the Jordan River. Excessive speed is believed to be a contributing factor in the crash.
The driver and two teenage boys, 16 and 17, were able to get out and swim to shore. Justin and the 2-year-old had to be extricated by first responders.
A family member says Justin had initially made it out of the vehicle but went back to try and help the 2-year-old.
There were also reports that someone who was in a nearby motor home when the car went into the canal was the first person to jump into the water to help and may have been the first to reach Justin. Smith was unsure whether the civilian or the firefighter pulled the teenager out of the vehicle, but noted that the citizen was still in the water helping when he arrived and a firefighter was bringing the boy to shore.
Video from a body camera worn by one of the officers arriving at the scene was released Monday by the Salt Lake City Police Department. The video shows how chaotic the situation was with nearly a dozen police officers and firefighters in the water trying to help, a woman screaming hysterically from the shore, along with others who were crying.
“I need you to stand back,” an officer is heard repeatedly pleading with the woman. “Come sit down.”
“I gotta watch. ... I don't want to sit down,” the woman cries, while later yelling, “She’s on that side. She’s unbuckled.”
Another person, who sounds like a teen, can be heard yelling, “Come on little brother,” presumedly directed toward Justin who was being treated on shore by medics.
Smith said after giving CPR to Justin that he jumped into the canal to try and help. The murky water presented several challenges. He couldn’t see anything underneath the water.
“I remember touching the back of the car and not seeing my hand 6 inches underwater,” Smith recalled.
Officer R.T., who asked that her full name not be used, said when she got to the scene, “there was just no hesitation,” and she jumped in the canal.
“When you’re actually in the water you can’t see anything,” she concurred. “You can’t see the car, and you know it’s upside down, but you have to think what side is what.”
R.T. said despite several people yelling, all she could hear was the woman on the bank, the driver of the car, screaming.
“I was so focused on her,” she recalled.
The woman was yelling that the little girl was on the passenger side, that the window was down and that she was unbuckled, R.T. recalled. She tried to relay that information to the officer who made several attempts to dive under the water the find her.
“She should be there. She should be on the passenger side,” the woman yelled.
Everyone who had a flashlight tried to use it to help the people who were going under the water, trying to feel their way to an opening in the car and to find the child, according to the officers on scene. R.T. said she recalled an officer saying he could feel the car seat but not the girl.
In addition to the water current moving the vehicle, the car was sliding down to the bottom of the U-shaped canal, Salt Lake Police Sgt. Devin Stutz said. Firefighters eventually found a rope that they tied to the vehicle while others on shore held onto the other end in an effort to prevent the car from sinking any further.
The vehicle was upside down with only a portion of its rear bumper sticking out of the water. Police say other passengers were apparently able to unbuckle the toddler from her child seat right after the car crashed into the water. But she became entangled in the seat belt and they were unable to pull her out.
When firefighters got oxygen tanks to the scene, rescuers were finally able to find the girl and get her out. Several officers are heard on the body camera video excitedly repeating, “Got her, got her!”
The girl was taken to Primary Children’s Hospital in extremely critical condition.
Several fundraisers have been established to help Justin’s family, including a GoFundMe campaign and the Justin Bates Memorial Fund at America First Credit Union.
Several have called Justin a “hero” for his actions.
“He’s greatly loved and will be missed,” his father, Gerald Bates, said on Monday, while noting that his son “never liked going out and getting in trouble. He stayed at home. He was a really good soul — an old soul.
“I lost Justin,” he added, “but I was blessed I didn’t lose another one.”
The investigation into the crash is expected to take awhile, according to police, as they reconstruct the accident scene and reinterview witnesses.
Stutz, who is head of Salt Lake City’s Gang Unit, said all of the gang unit responded to the scene that night in addition to patrol officers and K-9 officers ranging from newer officers to veterans. After the rescue operation was completed, Stutz gathered everyone together for a quick debriefing. There were hugs and even a few tears shed by the physically and mentally exhausted officers, many of whom have young children of their own.
“That evening, all of us — especially the ones who were in the water — there was definitely a sense of despair,” Stutz said. “It was hard seeing what we saw.”
Smith said he thought about what must have been going through the minds of the victims who were trapped under the water.
“It breaks my heart to know that the kids were trapped underneath there. I have kids the same age,” he said. “Like any parent, I’ll do anything I need to to protect my kids.”
“Seeing her complete lifeless, it was a terrible feeling but it was a relief that we didn’t have to pull the car out just to find a lifeless body in there,” R.T. concurred. “It was a sinking feeling, but a feeling of relief that we could at least attempt to save a life.”
The officer said that when she went to wash off her mud-stained shoes on Tuesday, “a flood of emotion set in.” While she was able to wash off the mud, the memories of that night remain.
“You don’t forget that feeling,” she said. “It sticks with you. It definitely sticks with you more than you expect.”
Peer support officers responded to the scene for officers who needed to talk. Stutz said counseling is also always available to those who need it.
But while there is sadness for the victims, there is also a feeling of job well done, Stutz said. “There was definitely bravery. Everybody knew that between us and fire and medical personnel it was a job well done.”
“Regardless of what the outcome was, our actions plus firefighters’ (actions) gave those kids the best chance of survival,” Smith added. “At the end of the day, the end outcome is not in my hands. But I know all of us that were there did the best that we could.”
“We did what we could and whatever was possible, I believe that myself or any of the officers on scene would do anything we could to get that child out,” R.T. concurred.
R.T. asked that her full name not be used because she did not want to be singled out for a rescue effort that involved many first responders.
“We don’t do this for the publicity or to be recognized for doing it. That night, it was just natural instinct,” she said. “We are not there because we have to be, but because we want to do this job. At the end of the day we want to know we did the best for somebody, hoping that it made a difference in somebody’s life.”
In a time when police officers are coming under public scrutiny for the way they perform their jobs, Stutz wants people to know that his officers also do a lot of good — and sometimes risk their own lives to help others.
That's why he sent a letter to Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall to tell her about Sunday’s rescue.
“When I arrived on scene I found that almost my entire gang unit along with K9 officers, patrol officers and firemen were in the water with the vehicle frantically trying to extricate the baby,” the letter states. “Almost all of the detectives and officers involved in heroically rescuing this baby out of the water have little children themselves and are already having a difficult time with this incident. It is extraordinarily difficult to pull a lifeless child from a scene of wreckage and murky water knowing that could be your child.
“Through soaking wet clothes and ruined gear, there were tears shed, hugs given and a sense of despair over these poor children that we worked and worked to save.
“Mayor Mendenhall, THIS is the Salt Lake City Police Department!” the letter continues. “We are not the racists that we are accused of being. In fact, we serve with dignity and honor and protect those in need of protection and capture those who deserve to be brought to justice regardless of race or creed. We do not hate the community in which we serve; we love this community with all our hearts. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with our department as we in fact have the most well-trained, dedicated, proactive officers that you will find anywhere.”
Stutz also used his letter to ask the mayor to reconsider her recent executive actions regarding department policies.
“Morale in our department right now is the lowest I have ever seen it. It is very bad. Large numbers of officers are contemplating leaving our department based on the upcoming policy changes. Mayor, we feel hopeless and do not feel supported.
“I am begging you, no I am pleading with you to please stop whatever it is that is driving you to make unnecessary changes in our policies and realize how it is hurting your officers, which in turn only hurts the citizens that we all serve and love. These new upcoming policies are tearing at the very fabric that holds this organization together and I fear there will be nothing left when that tear is complete. You have the power to stop this.”
Mendenhall announced several policy changes through executive order on Aug. 3, which are scheduled to take effect on Sept. 5. On Monday, the Salt Lake Police Association denounced the policy changes.
Contributing: Andrew Adams