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Video: 2 Minn. officers earn Medal of Valor for water rescue of 4-year-old boy

“I wasn’t letting Eli out of my sight,” Officer Ashley Bergersen. “So when I put him on that gurney, I knew I was with him until they told me to go home”

By Liz Sawyer
Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — The radio squawked signaling a priority one call and Minneapolis police Sgt. Jeremy Depies raced toward Bryn Mawr Meadows Park, where a 4-year-old boy had fallen through the ice.

He and two colleagues frantically scanned the reservoir searching for signs of the child. Suddenly, they spotted his navy snowpants bobbing above the surface.

Without hesitation, Officer Ashley Bergersen threw off her jacket and crashed through the frozen pond alongside Depies, wading in chest-deep water to reach little Eli Steinbach. She carried his limp body out to her partner, who helped perform chest compressions for several minutes until paramedics arrived.

“It was instinct‚" Bergersen said of the rescue last November. “I just thought that if it was my son, I sure hope somebody would go in and save them.”

Click below to see full video.

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Their heroic actions earned both Fourth Precinct officers a Medal of Valor, the department’s highest honor, during its annual award ceremony at the Ukrainian Cultural Center on Tuesday night. Relatives beamed as Chief Brian O’Hara placed the awards around their necks, two among several dozen recognized for going above and beyond the call of duty.

Body camera footage of the incident — released with permission from Eli’s mother — offers a rare glimpse into one of the most traumatic calls officers can receive: an unresponsive child.

On Sunday, Nov. 26 , three days after Thanksgiving , Sgt. Depies was on routine patrol with a civilian ridealong in north Minneapolis when the 911 call came through.

Within seconds, Depies arrived to find Eli’s older sister waiting in her front yard.

“Where is he?” Depies repeatedly asked. The girl didn’t know. Her mother came outside to direct officers toward an unfenced drainage pond, where she thinks Eli fell through after wandering outside.

Depies ran to the waters’ edge, meeting up with Bergersen and Officer Christopher Kleven , a recent transfer from the Brooklyn Center police department still in training. They soon found Eli, floating facedown, barely visible beyond his snowpants.

Bergersen lugged him to shore, where she and Kleven took turns performing CPR on the sidewalk as his mother wailed in the background. They pounded on his back in a desperate attempt to get water out of his lungs, while Depies radioed for an ambulance.

“Come on, bud!” Bergersen pleaded, her voice breaking. “Don’t die on us, OK! You can do it.”

When paramedics arrived, Bergersen climbed in the rig and rode to the hospital.

“I wasn’t letting Eli out of my sight,” she recalled in an interview. “So when I put him on that gurney, I knew I was gonna be there for the long haul. I was gonna be with him until they told me to go home.”

During the next few excruciating hours, Bergersen questioned whether she could keep doing the job if another child died before her eyes. In 2021, she was among the first officers to respond after a stray bullet struck 9-year-old Trinity Ottoson-Smith in the head while jumping on a trampoline. From the back of her squad car, Bergersen willed her to live. Trinity died 12 days later at the hospital.

Bergersen prayed for a better outcome this time. After nearly a week in a medically induced coma, Eli regained consciousness. His mother texted Bergersen a picture of him giving a thumbs up.

A giant weight lifted off the officers’ backs that day.

“This isn’t anything that either one of us has been trained to do,” Depies said of the water rescue, for which Kleven also received a Lifesaving award. “But in that moment it didn’t matter. ...We improvised.”

Eli suffered a hypoxic brain injury, which caused some hearing loss, according to the GoFundMe page set up by the family. But the fun-loving child got a second chance at life.

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