WEST ALTON • When St. Charles County sheriff’s deputy Mike Hoefle saw a car race past him toward a closed recreation area, he thought the driver was up to no good.
Hoefle, a corporal and 10-year veteran of the department, was working a secondary job with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, providing security at the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary.
It was 9:04 p.m. Friday, and the area where the driver was headed had been closed since sunset.
Hoefle followed the Hyundai as it continued down the unlit roadway. He saw it drive through a parking lot, down a rocky bank and into the icy waters of the Mississippi River.
The car spun around and was filling up fast with water.
Hoefle yelled for the woman to get out of the car, but she didn’t react, he said. Eventually, as the car sunk farther in the frigid water, the woman moved. She climbed into the back seat and tried to kick out a window.
“She was screaming and yelling for help,” he said. “She couldn’t get out.”
Hoefle’s car thermometer said it was 30 degrees outside, and hypothermia was going to set in quickly.
“I knew whatever I was going to do, I had to do it fast,” he said.
The situation wasn’t a first for Hoefle. He’s received two meritorious service awards for pulling people from burning cars.
Hoefle dropped his flashlight on the shore, shining it toward the river in case he got disoriented and couldn’t find his way back. He waded in until the water got up to his chin.
The car was about 50 feet from shore. Most of it was under water.
Hoefle, 39, used a tool to break out the rear passenger window. He grabbed the woman through the opening.
“She kept asking me ‘How did you know? Where did you come from?’” he said.
Hoefle placed the woman, 46, of Gillespie, Ill., into his back seat and turned the heat up all the way. She told him that she had been trying to kill herself, he said.
“But she kept thanking me for saving her,” he said.
Hoefle, who was in the water for about 90 seconds, said he didn’t need any medical care, just some warm blankets. The woman was taken to an area hospital where she was treated for hypothermia. Hoefle hasn’t had any contact with her, but he has heard she is doing OK. “It’s kind of weird how things work out sometimes,” he said. “If she had come down that road 10 seconds later, I wouldn’t have seen her. I was almost back to the highway, heading back to St. Charles.”