A former Highland paramedic has received the highest honor the state of Illinois can bestow on a firefighter.
Todd Zobrist, who rescued a baby from a vehicle submerged in the frigid waters of Silver Lake in March 2017, was awarded the Firefighting Medal of Honor on May 8 during the Illinois Fallen Firefighter Memorial and Firefighting Medal of Honor Awards Ceremony in Springfield. The Medal of Honor is awarded for "demonstrating selflessness and personal courage above and beyond the call of duty."
“You are our heroes. You have dedicated your lives to protecting the people of our state. Each of you has demonstrated incredible commitment, dedication and love of our people. It takes unknowable courage to run toward danger, to walk through fire, to put your personal safety to the side and focus only on others,” Gov. Bruce Rauner told a group of firefighters and their families gathered on the lawn of the Capitol before the awards ceremony.
Zobrist and his partner, Ty Barr, had already worked nearly a 24-hour shift when they responded to an emergency call around 5:30 a.m. March 16, 2017, at Silver Lake, where an SUV was partially submerged.
“Unknown to any of the Highland authorities at the time, this was an attempted murder-suicide in associated with an occupied house fire in nearby Glen Carbon," said Edwardsville Fire Department Chief Rick Welle, who presented Zobrist with his award during the ceremony at the Bank of Springfield Center.
When Zobrist and Barr arrived, they could still see the headlights from the SUV beaming through the cold water in the predawn darkness. They knew they must act fast, knowing that firefighters with a boat and special diving gear were stuck at a railroad crossing.
“By the time his unit arrived on scene, Paramedic Zobrist, an excellent athlete, had already shed some of his clothing despite the 19-degree outside temperature. Zobrist did not hesitate jumping into the lake,” said Welle.
Zobrist swam somewhere between 75 and 100 feet in life-threatening, 46-degree water, where he found an infant boy floating inside the SUV. The baby was not breathing, so Zobrist performed CPR on the baby while on the roof of the SUV, and the baby began to breathe on his own. About seven minutes after Zobrist and Barr arrived on the scene, Zobrist dove back into the water, swimming back to shore with the baby in tow.
“Incredibly, against all odds, the child was resuscitated and released without any deficit the very next day to family members,” Welle said.
Barr was honored with the Firefighter Excellence Award for his role in the rescue. The award is for "an act of service in the line of duty, demonstrating excellence and professionalism in service to the citizens of the state of Illinois."
Zobrist, a 2003 graduate of Highland High School, is currently a firefighter/paramedic for West County EMS and Fire Protection District. He lives with his wife, Jessica, and two sons outside of Highland, and is the son of Steve and Ky Zobrist. Zobrist is also a captain for Highland-Pierron Fire Department, works as an instructor for Illinois Fire Service Institute, and is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom while serving with the United States Army National Guard.
Barr, a 2001 graduate of Highland High School, is a paramedic and firefighter for the city of Highland. He lives with his wife, Erin, in Highland and is the son of William and Judy Kealey and the late Terry Barr.
“There’s a lot of people I would like to thank today,” Zobrist said in a video played at the ceremony before he received his medal. "I’d like to thank my wife, especially. She’s there for me all the time. This isn’t something that just happens by accident. There’s a lot of training that goes into everything that we do, and she’s always there to support me."
Zobrist also thanked his mother and mother-in-law for all that they do, and he also thanked his former commander, Highland EMS Brian Wilson, and Highland police Chief Terry Bell for their concern after the incident.
“They were both there to take care of me, make sure everything was alright, because I was in the hospital for a period of time afterward, recovering from the hypothermia,” Zobrist said. “So I want to thank both of those two for taking care of me.”
Nominations were reviewed and recipients selected by the Illinois Firefighting Medal of Honor Committee.
This is the second time for local responders to be recognized by the Office of the State Marshal in the 25 years of awards. Six years ago, three Highland-Pierron Fire Department firefighters were awarded the Medal of Valor for their actions during a fire on May 31, 2011. HPFD Capt. Phil Decker, Capt. Brian Klostermann, and Stephen Linenfelser were awarded the Medal of Valor for pulling Kyle Schmitt to safety through a window of the burning home.