As Officer Kurt Kaner’s police boat cut through the frigid waves in a Monday, Jan. 10, race to Chicago’s Navy Pier, he knew only a few very bad things.
And he still had to get past the Chicago Harbor Lock to reach her. They’d alerted the lockmaster ahead of them to swing open the gates dividing the lake from the river. Sometimes it seems to take an eternity for the column of water five stories high to reach its level in the well, and for the gates to swing wide.
“What they’ll do then is they’ll open both doors at the same time, and that’s pretty treacherous because we have water flowing through at a pretty high rate and our boat was kind of maneuvering all over the place,” said Kaner, 57, the skipper of the Chicago Police Department Marine Unit’s 45-foot Gladding-Hearn patrol boat.
A 19-year veteran of the force, Andrew Riley was below deck donning his drysuit, convinced he’d be diving into the water to rescue her. Above him, 17-year veteran Gretchen Chavez, 41, was prepping the rescue equipment to fish out the girl, if they could reach her in time.
Both officers had spent the last four years in the elite Marine Unit, which patrols all the bodies of water inside the city, including 80 square miles of Lake Michigan, 27 miles of its shoreline, 38 miles of the Chicago River, Wolf Lake, Lake Calumet, and all the ponds and lagoons peppering the Windy City.
Navy Pier Security, Chicago Police officers on foot, and bystanders had heaved a life buoy to the girl and dropped a fabric ladder for her, but she’d grown too weak to use them.
Once Kaner could wriggle the patrol boat through the slit in the lock’s gates, he gunned it, motoring against the lake water still roaring in.
Within six minutes of dispatch, Kaner’s boat neared the girl, who was bobbing next to the pier. The first responders on the pier were unable to get her out of the water.
“We could see several Chicago police officers holding on to the line of the ring buoy, and we see a lady in the water — and it’s a large ledge, about 15 feet tall — so there’s no way they’re going to be able to pull her out,” Kaner told Coffee or Die Magazine. “She’s barely hanging on to this ring buoy.”
Kaner steered the boat propellers away from her. Without a second of hesitation, Riley jumped into the water, and Chavez rushed to tie the vessel to the pier.
Riley chopped through 30 feet of lake and grasped her. She was unconscious but had gotten lucky. The cloth ladder dangled by the officers along the pier had become entangled in her legs, preventing her from sinking into the cold, black water.
“So she had no ability to keep herself in the buoy at that point — or help at any point,” Riley told Coffee or Die. “The only thing that was holding her up was, somehow, they had that ladder and it was around her leg. I don’t know how they managed to do that.”
Riley knew she was moments from death, so he swam back to the boat while gripping the ring buoy, pinning the girl’s arms so that she wouldn’t slip underwater, and talking to her the entire time. Chavez was waiting for him at the stern of the boat. She reached out her hand and began pulling in the girl and Riley. Kaner had cut the engine so the propeller wouldn’t dice them up.
Kaner and the crew immediately went to work passively rewarming the girl, raising her core temperature while transporting her to the boat landing. Then, they handed her off to waiting Chicago Fire Department paramedics and emergency medical technicians.
According to Officer Jose Jara, a Chicago Police Department spokesperson, the girl is recovering in stable condition at a nearby hospital.
“This is why. This is why we’re here,” Riley said. “This is what drives us, and we enjoy it. So, I mean, I’m grateful to be here, and I’m glad to keep doing this for a long time.”
It was an especially sweet moment for Kaner. After 27 years on the police force, he retires Thursday.
“It’s why you take the job,” Kaner said. “I’ve been in the Marine Unit for 18 years. I’ve been on dozens and dozens of rescues and I have two days left — this is the way I’d want to go out. I’m glad I got to kind of rescue one more person on my way out with a team that is really good.”