50 Years of Police Officer of the Year: A Water Rescue by Air

50thPOYLogo_Opt2_CLR_R1Since 1966, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has recognized one law enforcement officer – in a few cases multiple officers – who exemplified outstanding and heroic achievement. While the name of the award may have changed during that time, the honor has not. To celebrate 50 years of awardees, the IACP will be featuring in-depth stories about some of the past Police Officer of the Year winners.

For Sergeant Chip Sunier of the Indiana State Police, one Sunday afternoon in June 2001 is a day that will stand out to him forever.

That day, two young couples decided to go on a boating trip on the White River near Indianapolis, Indiana. Both wives were pregnant and one of the couples had their 9-month-old son with them.

As they drifted down the river with the current, the motor of the boat hit an object in the water and lost its propeller. The boat was about to go over the dam when it struck a tree. The impact made the boat spin around and it hung over the dam with the nose sticking straight up in the air.

Responding to the 911 call, emergency personnel first tried to execute a boat rescue by going out on the river themselves. Unfortunately the boat was too close to the dam and the current too fast for the rescuers to get to it safely. They then tried to extend the ladder of a firetruck out over the water, but it wasn’t long enough for the families to reach. Their final option was to try a helicopter- a dangerous move because it would have to get close enough to the water to lower harnesses to the family members.

Sgt. Chip Sunier and Sgt. John Kelley with the Indiana State Police had trained together for just such a situation. With Sgt. Kelley in the pilot’s seat, Sgt. Sunier knew it was his job to get the families safely into the helicopter. Hovering far above the boat, they lowered the first harness for the baby. The parents tried to put the harness on their young son, but it was too big for his little body.

At that point, Sgt. Sunier knew more drastic measures were needed and he directed Sgt. Kelley to lower the helicopter closer to the raging water. Sgt. Sunier got out of the helicopter and stood on one of the landing skids as he extended his arm to grab the baby. The baby’s father lifted the child as high as he could and passed him off to Sgt. Sunier safely. The two officers then got the baby back on land and after three more helicopter trips, they saved everyone on the boat.

“I got Kim to hand the baby to her husband who reached up and got him to me. What a relief I felt,” said Sgt. Chip Sunier. “It’s funny, as bad as it was, I was not scared or nervous. I felt like John and I were meant to save these people that day.”
It turns out that heroism runs in the Sunier family. Sgt. Sunier’s son, Master Trooper Troy Sunier was on the bank of the river providing assistance as his father was inside the helicopter.

“I was working as a trooper out of the Pendleton State Police Post when this water rescue occurred, and it made worldwide news,” said Indiana State Police Superintendent Doug Carter. “What Sgt. Chip Sunier and Sgt. John Kelley- the pilot of the helicopter- accomplished that day was the melding of separate skill sets showing the result of hours of practice as a team working through different potential rescue situations.”

Sgt. Sunier saved more than five lives that day. Less than six months later, both women safely delivered their babies. The picture in Parade magazine celebrating his award showed Sgt. Sunier with the newly expanded families. One of the wives later stated, “These guys are our heroes. They were their best when we were at our worst.”

Do you know a police officer who should be nominated for Police Officer of the Year? Time is running out so, nominate them now! Applications are due Friday, July 22, 2016.

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