A 4-month-old baby was left locked inside a sweltering car Monday in the parking lot of a northern New Jersey Kohl’s
It wasn’t until later, when Steve Eckel got home, that the reality of what could have happened set in.
“That baby could have died,” Eckel said Tuesday afternoon by phone, as he talked about rescuing a 4-month-old infant Monday from a hot car in a Howell shopping center.
The Jackson man, 53, is being hailed as a hero after he smashed the window and rescued the infant, who had been left alone in a locked car outside Kohl’s on Monday afternoon. The infant’s mother, Karen B. Gruen, 33, of Lakewood, was arrested and charged with child endangerment, Howell Detective Sgt. Christian Antunez said.
“When I got home, I still had the (baby’s) onesie,” he said. “My wife asked what it was, and when she picked it up, it was still soaking wet. That’s when it really hit me.”
Eckel is a retired sergeant with the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office. He said he’s about to start a job as a security officer in the East Brunswick School District and had gone to Kohl’s with two of his daughters Monday “because I needed a couple of shirts for the new job.”
His daughter Carissa, 16, drove and, like many new drivers “parked about 30 spots away from the store so she wouldn’t have to park next to anyone,” Eckel said. While Carissa and his youngest daughter, Charlize, 10, went to one store to check out makeup, Eckel headed into Kohl’s.
He was passing a woman coming in the opposite direction when the woman, Sarah Mazzone, 30, of Howell, exclaimed “Oh my God!” as she noticed the baby in the car. The doors were locked and the windows were up, he said.
“That’s when we both heard the baby screaming,” he said. Mazzone ran into the store to get help while Eckel called police. He asked a couple of young men if either had a tire iron in their cars, and then he remembered he had a sledgehammer in his car. “I ran back to my car in my flip-flops,” said Eckel, who lost his eyeglasses and his Kohl’s card in the process, grabbed the sledgehammer and ran back and smashed the front passenger window.
“I had been doing a project, but I had taken a whole bunch of stuff out of the car so (Carissa) could see out the back,” he said, but he left the sledgehammer when he noticed it after he’d closed the garage. “Things happen for a reason,” he said.
Eckel estimates the infant had been in the car for 15 to 20 minutes at the time of the rescue, which happened shortly before 1 p.m. Antunez said the temperature was in the upper 80s at the time and that officers believe the baby may have been in the car even longer.
“Her face was all red, and her hands and feet were red,” Eckel said, and the baby girl was soaking wet. She was dressed in a T-shirt and a onesie, and had a wool blanket over her, and the car seat’s shade was pulled down as well. Her body temperature was above 100 degrees, he estimated.
Eckel ran with the baby inside the store — the car was parked not far from the entrance, he said — and started stripping her clothing off. Mazzone brought bottled water, which they used to help cool the little girl down, Eckel said.
“Several mothers kept trying to take her from me, but I told them, ‘I’ve got six kids, five daughters. I know what I’m doing,’ ” he said. “I raised my son by myself until he was 5. People don’t realize there are dads who do this stuff all the time.”
Antunez said Patrolman Daniel Scherbinski and Patrolman Edward Homiek, who had responded to Eckel’s 9-1-1 call, were speaking with him and Mazzone when they saw a woman approach the car and begin to panic upon finding the smashed-out window. They approached the woman — identified as Gruen — and told her the baby was in the store.
Howell First Aid responded to the scene and treated the baby, who by that time was doing much better as a result of the air conditioning, he said.
Eckel said he turned the baby over to her 13-year-old sister; Gruen had apparently been shopping in the store with the 13-year-old and a 7-year-old.
The family is Orthodox Jewish, he said.
“I know people are bashing her for her religion,” he said, “but this has nothing to do with religion. Idiots are in all walks of life.”
Antunez said Gruen was arrested and released pending a future court date. The baby was turned over to the custody of her father, who declined any further medical treatment for the baby. The baby appeared to be doing much better after being fed and cooled down, Antunez said.
“I recognize the civilians who took immediate action to rescue this child, for they truly saved a life,” Howell Police Chief Andrew Kudrick said.
This isn’t the first time Eckel has saved a life. Eckel said that while he was with the sheriff’s department, he had to rescue a young woman who had taken a potentially fatal mix of heroin and pills and had walked into the street near the courthouse, nearly getting hit by a car.
He got her out of the street and helped keep her alive until EMTs took over. A year later, Eckel said, the woman’s father contacted him and thanked him, telling him that his daughter had been clean for a year after Eckel rescued her.
“It hit home because I have a daughter the same age,” he said. “This hits home, too.”