Saturday, September 22, 2018
Public safety

Officer recounts the last moments of Phoebe Jonchuck's life

ST. PETERSBURG — Officer William Vickers knew when rescuers brought the little girl onto the boat that she was gone.

Her body was cold. She had been in the chilly January water too long after her father dropped her 62 feet from a bridge into Tampa Bay.

Even if they could resuscitate her, he wondered, what would her life be like after such a fall?

Vickers the professional, though, had to keep Vickers the human at bay.

The lone witness to the death of 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck on Jan. 8 stayed in officer-mode. As firefighters gathered emergency gear around him, Vickers began CPR. He went through motions he had not performed since training: compression, compression, compression.

"30 to 1. 30 to 1. 30 to 1," he thought, focused on the task, the ratio of compressions to breaths even as it became clear that Phoebe was dead. She looked kind of like his niece, he realized, roughly the same age, the same size, the same hair.

"30 to 1. 30 to 1. 30 to 1." The firefighters took over CPR but hope waned.

They reached O'Neill's Marina. Vickers stepped off onto the dock, dissolving into tears. The professional was done. The human took over.

"Me the person didn't get a chance to breathe until I was off the boat," Vickers said Thursday.

It was the first time the officer spoke publicly about Phoebe's death, after receiving an award for meritorious service in a police honors ceremony.

In the six months since, Vickers has poured himself into his work, seen a counselor, leaned on his faith. The events of that night, when police say John Jonchuck, 25, dropped his daughter off the top of the Dick Misener Bridge, still play in Vickers' mind. It is like a rerun that won't end.

"The 'why' question," he said, "it will never be able to be answered adequately."

Vickers, 37, was driving to his home in Ruskin about midnight after a 10-hour shift when a speeding driver passed him on southbound Interstate 275 near Maximo Park. He radioed dispatch and followed the car, never turning on his emergency lights.

By the time he reached the Dick Misener, Vickers was able to make out the license plate. The driver was slowing down. Vickers pulled up a car length behind, fearing the worst.

"I was concerned for a gunfight," he said.

Jonchuck stepped out of the car and moved toward the police cruiser, Vickers said. The officer pulled out his gun and held it at sternum height, angled slightly toward the ground, ready to fire. But Jonchuck never charged, never pulled a weapon, never threatened Vickers' life.

Instead, Vickers recalled, he reached into the back seat and pulled out a child. The long hair, the small body, Vickers could tell right away it was a little girl. She looked groggy, like she was unfurling from a nap.

Within seconds, police said, Phoebe's father walked her to the edge of the bridge, leaned over and let go. Vickers thought he heard her scream.

A car almost struck Vickers when he ran to the side of the bridge and looked down. Jonchuck drove off, according to authorities, and was later arrested.

"Please let me see her," Vickers remembered thinking as he looked over the side. He descended a ladder to a dock-like platform near the water. He called out to the waves, hearing only the sound of water crashing into the pillars below.

Six months later, Vickers wants to make sure he "is prepared to be Phoebe's voice at trial." Doctors have not yet declared Jonchuck mentally competent to stand trial, but Vickers said he must be ready. His voice still trembles at the thought of it.

"I'm the only witness to a terrible, terrible tragedy," he said. "So I have the responsibility to make sure she gets justice."

Vickers was raised Baptist. He prayed on the boat while they searched for Phoebe, holding onto hope that they would find her quickly. He said he does not ask why he was the first on scene. God, he said, only gives people what they can handle.

"I'd rather it be me, because I don't have children," Vickers said. "So many officers do."

He has not sought out the details of Phoebe's life. He did not learn her name until the morning after she died. "I try to avoid getting into all of that for my own personal mental health," he said.

After he stepped off the boat, Vickers met with a St. Petersburg police counselor, then was interviewed by detectives. He texted his wife from the station, telling her he would be late and that she might see something on the news. He finally returned home at 8 a.m. that morning, but went back to work the next day for a meeting with fellow field training officers about an incoming class of rookies.

Vickers, who goes by "Drew," said he always wanted to be a police officer. As a child, he would sketch a cop when asked to show his ideal career. But his path was winding. He's placid, patient, a thinker. His aunt told him he didn't have the demeanor for law enforcement.

So Vickers worked for several years as a technician at Lens­Crafters before going back to school and joining the force six years ago. He works around Mirror Lake now, and most of his friends are in the department. After the night Phoebe died, he knew he needed to be with his fellow officers, that they would understand better than anyone.

"It's just going to be another day. There's not going to be a ton of questions about it. It's business as usual. So that was helpful."

The number one question people still ask: "How do you feel?"

Vickers said he is okay. He is healing. He drives over the Dick Misener on his route to and from work almost every day. He does not ask: "What if?"

A former triathlete, he said he considered jumping in after Phoebe. But that wouldn't have made sense. Vickers never saw her after she fell. "In the dark water, going in without a possible target," he said, "it's not the smartest idea."

Instead, he clung to the platform, praying, yelling, straining for signs of a little girl whose name he did not know, his flashlight beam searching the waves.

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

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