by SARAH NACHIN
Hernando Sun Reporter
“Luck,” or coincidence, plus the quick action of two Hernando County sheriff’s deputies prevented an accident from becoming a tragedy when they rescued a baby from the Weeki Wachee River last Friday afternoon Jan. 3, 2020.
Steve Snell, a seasoned Marine Deputy was training another officer - Patrol Deputy Zachary Burkhart for the job. Both men were operating sheriff’s office personal watercraft (PWC) to patrol the river.
It was approximately 2:30 p.m. and they had stopped in the area of the 2-mile marker to take a late lunch break when they observed an overturned canoe. Deputy Snell saw a woman in the water and heard her screaming, “My baby!”
Burkhart and Snell saw a man on one side of the canoe and a woman on the other side. That portion of the river is about six or seven feet deep with a swift current. The parents were having a difficult time getting to the canoe.
The deputies jumped on Snell’s PWC and went to the overturned canoe. The deputies moved the canoe to one side and saw an infant car seat upside down in the water.
Burkhart pulled the car seat from the water and onto the PWC. He observed that there was an infant strapped in the car seat. The baby was not wearing a life jacket and did not appear to be breathing. At that point the mother tried to get on the jet ski to be with the baby which almost capsized the watercraft. The deputies had trouble communicating with the couple because of a language barrier. It was later determined that the baby was a little girl, just four months old.
“Thankfully, I was able to get hold of the car seat. It was a difficult task with the current there,” stated Deputy Burkhart.
“We shot across the river to the beach area where it was shallower so we could do an assessment. We beached and began our assessment. The child opened her eyes and began to cry,” Deputy Snell remarked.
Hernando County Fire Rescue arrived at the scene and rushed the baby to a local hospital. She was later transferred to a pediatric facility for higher level monitoring and the child was later listed in stable condition.
“It’s fortunate that they are allowing deputies to come out and shadow to train [with another deputy]. Without Deputy Burkhart’s help that day, this would have been a huge issue for myself and we were beached at the area where this occurred. It’s just a blessing. Everything worked out,” Snell concluded.
An investigation revealed that when the parents rented the canoe, the person in charge at the rental facility had placed a life jacket on the infant before the family left. It is not known when or why the parents removed the life jacket. Once the baby and her mother were on the way to the hospital, Deputy Snell issued a citation to the father for Personal Flotation Device Not Worn by a Child under the Age of 6.
Burkhart and Snell believe that due to the parents’ panic and the strong current in the river at the time of the incident, they prevented a tragedy with their quick and decisive actions.
It’s said that coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous. No matter what your beliefs, it is certainly true that the incident on the river could have turned out completely different. The baby and her parents received a precious gift on January 3, 2020.