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Minn. officers acts of heroism during water rescue save 4-year-old boy from drowning

On November 26, 2023, Minneapolis Fourth Precinct police Sgt. Jeremy Depies and Officer Ashley Bergersen, received a water emergency call that led to the traumatic search and heroic rescue of Eli Steinbach, a 4-year-old boy with autism, who fell through thin ice in an unfenced drainage pond, and nearly drowned.


Both Sgt. Depies and Officer Bergersen received a Medal of Valor on April 30, 2024, the Minneapolis police department’s highest honor, for their rescue of Eli. Sgt. Depies and Officer Bergersen went into the partially frozen pond in Bryn Mawr Meadows Park to reach Eli, who they believe was in the water for five to six minutes before they found him.


“I wanted to locate Eli as quickly as I could, and when I arrived on the scene there was very little information,” said Sgt. Depies. “We ran down to the pond and saw his snow pants sticking up above the ice. At that point, I just reacted. It was more human nature than anything.”


After falling through the ice into chest-deep water to rescue him, Officer Bergersen brought his limp body out of the pond, where she and Officer Christopher Kleven took turns doing chest compressions until an ambulance arrived. Kleven also received a Lifesaving award for his efforts that day.


“Receiving the Medal of Valor is a nice honor, however, the only thing that really matters is that Eli is alive today,” said Sgt. Depies, who had never responded to a drowning while on duty in his 13 years of service until the 911 call came from a concerned neighbor who saw Eli run into the pond.


“I maybe made it three feet into the pond when I fell through the ice, and saw his navy-blue snow pants floating and grabbed him,” recalls Officer Bergersen. “He was so light – I felt like the Hulk lifting him up. Adrenalin just kicked in.”


Bergersen never left Eli’s side, riding in the ambulance with him to the hospital and praying for his survival. “I just held onto his hand in the ambulance – I’m not that spiritual, but I knew I could feel him, I knew he was still there,” recalls Bergersen. “I talk to all my kids in tough situations even if they don’t have a pulse. I feel like if I can talk to them, maybe they can come back.”


Eli received a second chance at life, regaining consciousness after nearly a week in a medically induced coma. His mom, Caitlyn Shields, texted Officer Bergersen an image of him giving the thumbs up once he was awake. Eli suffered a hypoxic brain injury, which caused some hearing loss, according to a GoFundMe page set up by a friend of the family.


In a message Shields shared on the GoFundMe page dated May 1, 2024, she said, “We are incredibly grateful for our community and all who have continued to support us, wish us well and pray for our sweet Eli. Your generosity has been instrumental in helping Eli and our family navigate through an incredibly challenging time. As Eli continues his path towards recovery, we must also acknowledge the profound impact his accident has had on his four siblings, as well as his parents - especially his mom, whom unfortunately has had to see things no mother should ever have to see.”

Officer Bergersen was already having a tough week leading up to Eli’s incident, and she hugged her two young children so much when she finally returned home. The incident took her back to 2021 when she was among the first to respond when 9-year-old Trinity Ottoson-Smith was struck in the head by a stray bullet while jumping on a trampoline. Bergersen willed her to live, and Trinity died 12 days later. 


Processing the trauma, taking time to decompress and seeking mental health support has been helpful for Bergersen, who tearfully told Eli “I may have saved you, but you actually saved me.”


“Though what I did saved him, this situation saved me because I have now sought therapy,” said Bergersen. “I thought I was ok after Trinity, but I don’t think I ever really processed her death and what happened to her. I would have never gotten the help I needed if it wasn’t for Eli. Of course, you don’t want anyone to ever have to experience this as a mother or as a police officer, but I’m honestly very happy that I was working that day, and for the outcome for Eli and his family.”


Drowning is the No. 1 cause of death for children with autism, according to data from the National Library of Medicine. Sgt. Depies reminds the public to “Pay attention to the conditions of the ice and the location of young children in proximity to water, especially those with special needs. Don’t test out the ice if the temperature outside is above freezing.”


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