Hernando deputies rescue infant after canoe overturns on Weeki Wachee River

The marine deputies were patrolling the river and taking a late lunch break when the canoe flipped over right in front of them.
Kayakers enjoy a morning paddle down the Weeki Wachee Springs River at Weeki Wachee State Park.
Kayakers enjoy a morning paddle down the Weeki Wachee Springs River at Weeki Wachee State Park. [ Michele Miller ]
Published Jan. 6, 2020|Updated Jan. 6, 2020

WEEKI WACHEE — Two Hernando sheriff’s deputies taking a late lunch break while patrolling the Weeki Wachee River found themselves in the right place at the right time Friday to rescue a 4-month-old baby who nearly drowned.

The incident took place at about 2:30 p.m. near the river’s 2-mile mark, a spot with strong currents and 7-foot depths.

Steve Snell, a marine deputy who operates a personal watercraft for the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office, was training patrol deputy Zachary Burkhart to join the marine unit. They were patrolling the river, stopping boaters and checking their safety equipment, when they took a break and ate their lunch on the shore.

That’s when they saw a couple trying to lean their canoe over to avoid some low-hanging branches on the river. But the canoe flipped over. “My baby!” a woman screamed while in the water, according to the Sheriff's Office.

The deputies jumped back onto the sheriff’s waterscooter and headed to the canoe. They righted it and saw an infant car seat in the water. It was upside-down. The parents were struggling to get their footing in the river, Snell said, and reach their child.

Burkhart pulled the seat from the water and found an infant strapped into it, without a life jacket. The 4-month-old did not appear to be breathing.

Snell took the baby to the shoreline to render medical aid. But the child hadn’t made a sound.

“When I didn’t see the baby cry, a lot of things ran through my head, like how far upriver we were,” Burkhart said. “When I saw the baby’s eyes open and start to cry, it was a relief.”

Paramedics arrived and took the infant to a local hospital for treatment. The baby was then transferred to a pediatric facility and reported to be in stable condition, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Deputies said they found the person who rented the canoe to the family. That person told them they outfitted the child with a life jacket. By state law, all children under the age of 6 must wear a personal flotation device. But deputies did not know when or why it was removed. They baby’s father was cited because a child under the age of 6 was not wearing a flotation device.

“It is believed that due to the state of panic both parents were in and the strong current in the river at the time of the incident, Deputies Snell and Burkhart prevented a tragedy with their quick and decisive actions during this incident,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.