Steven Eckel, 53, said the baby girl was in distress Monday when he and another woman spotted her screaming in the backseat of a car in a shopping center’s parking lot. “She was soaking wet, sweat all over her face and hair. She was screaming. Her eyes were rolling back. Just frantic, frantic,” Eckel told TIME on Wednesday.
The infant was wearing a onesie and a T-shirt and had a wool blanket draped over her. “Another 15 minutes in that car and absolutely she would have been dead,” he added.
Eckel said he ran to his car in his flip-flops to fetch a sledgehammer he had in the trunk. It took him four strikes before one of the car’s windows shattered.
The retired cop then raced the baby into a nearby store, where he took off her clothes and began wetting her body with water to cool her down. “I could feel the baby’s heat through my shirt,” he said.
Eckel, a father of six, said temperatures were in the low 90s on Monday, but that the temperature easily could have reached 120 degrees as the car was facing the sun. “For me, it just hits home,” he said. “It’s about humanity. This shouldn’t happen in this day and age. There’s no reason for babies to die in cars, dogs to die in cars. There’s no reason for it.”
Police arrested the baby’s 33-year-old mother, Karen Gruen, and charged her with endangering the welfare of a child, CBS New York reports. Authorities said she was away from the baby for about 40 minutes.
The reality that Eckel may have saved the baby’s life only sank in after the ordeal was over. “I was kind of just standing there and I almost started to cry,” he said. “It finally hit me what would have happened if we didn’t do what we did. It was emotional.”