GERMANTOWN – The last time Montgomery County Police Officer Jonathan Pruziner saw 7-year-old Sahara McCallister, she was lying on her back cold and wet.
On Friday the two met again, as Sahara and her mother were reunited with the cop who saved her life after she went missing more than a week ago.
Sahara, who is autistic and nonverbal, ran away while a babysitter was watching her when her mother was at work. Pruziner, one of 15 officers who responded to the emergency call, found Sahara in a nearby pond suffering from hypothermia in near-freezing temperatures.
“She was pale. She was shaking. She was foaming at the mouth. I thought she was dying in my arms,” Mary Wimpy said after seeing her daughter in the hospital after Pruziner rescued her.
Wimpy hugged Pruziner after seeing him at Friday’s press conference, thanking him for saving her daughter’s life between cries of relief and joy.
“And that’s why I’m thankful for this officer, because if he didn’t find her she wouldn’t be here – she wouldn’t at all,” Wimpy said.
Inside the Montgomery County Police 5th District station in Germantown, Pruziner, who joined the department in 2013, said didn’t understand the commotion, and was overwhelmed with the media attention as more than a dozen reporters and cameramen crowded him into the station’s cozy front room.
“That’s why cops suit up in the morning for calls like this,” he said.
With a search helicopter hovering above, K-9 units and more than dozen cops out searching for Sahara, Pruziner exited his squad car on March 4 near Locustdale Drive in Germantown and began to follow a pipe that he said he thought would lead into a body of water.
Pruziner credited his training in Montgomery County Police’s autism outreach training, where he learned that children with autism often tend to be attracted to water, to pursuing a course of action that led to successfully finding the young girl. For, at the end of the pipe, Pruziner found Clear Spring Park and Sahara lying on her back in the park’s pond in a half of inch of water. Pruziner picked her up, carried her to a nearby townhouse and called an ambulance. Emergency medical personnel eventually took Sahara to Children’s Hospital in Washington to be treated for hypothermia.
Laurie Reyes, an officer with Montgomery County Police’s Autism/Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Outreach Unit, said the department’s training has changed dramatically during the last five years and that police are much quicker to react to calls about missing kids with autism, knowing their attraction to water creates an increased risk for drowning.
“When we have a call like this it’s almost instantaneous with the response,” Reyes said. “Officers saturate the area because we know that time is not on our side.”