CHICAGO — It was the moment Brian Otto had trained for.
The firefighter-diver was in 10 feet of murky water at Belmont Harbor on Friday, feeling among submerged rocks after a 911 report of someone in the lake.
He and fellow diver Bill Davis felt around by moving their hands in arcs as drifting sand limited visibility to two feet.
Stanko Bojanovic, 65, had already been rescued from the water by the harbormaster. Bojanovic spoke Serbian, but cried out: “Boy! Boy!”
Onlookers realized a child might still be in the lake.
The 911 call came in at 2:25 p.m. Friday, as Otto and Davis’ helicopter lifted off from a fuel stop at Midway Airport. They were already in scuba gear for a drill. They flew to the harbor and landed at 2:29 p.m, the Fire Department said.
Meanwhile, nearly a dozen other Fire Department divers were wrapping up underwater training at a pool near North and Larrabee. They stepped into waiting scuba gear and arrived at the harbor seconds after the helicopter, said Cmdr. Ron Dorneker.
A witness directed Dorneker to the general area where Bojanovic had been searching.
Otto and Davis jumped in near the end of the pier and swam toward land. Divers Cedric Collins and Bob Skwarek jumped in near the base of the pier and moved outward.
They were performing a grid search, sharpened by drills that had familiarized them with Belmont Harbor’s rocks and ladders.
Collins prayed: “Let me find him.”
“It just seemed like an eternity, but I knew we were going to come up with that kid,” Otto said.
Then he spotted something. “I saw the top of his head,” Otto said. “I thought he was on a bike.”
It was Bojanovic’s grandson, Lazar Ognjenovich, 2. His stroller, apparently buffeted by wind, had rolled into the lake.
“I got him,” Otto said via his wireless communicator.
As he tried to lift him, he realized Lazar was strapped in a stroller.
Adrenaline and training kicked in. Despite his weighted “dry suit” and scuba tanks, Otto knew he was going to carry the child, stroller and all, to the surface 10 feet above.
“You see this kid underwater, and you’re a firefighter, you’re a rescue diver, but you’re also a father,” said Otto, who has a son, Devin, 4. “I held nothing back.
“No matter what, we’re going to get to the surface,” he thought. “And we’re doing it now.”
He wrenched the stroller free and carried Lazar to waiting paramedics above.
About three minutes elapsed between the divers’ arrival and the recovery of the boy, said Lt. Kevin Nitsche, another diver who responded. “I was thrilled we found him as fast as we did,” Nitsche said.
He and other rescue divers are runners and swimmers, and they train for these moments. “That’s what we do,” he said.
Still, “You really do feel 10 feet tall” after a rescue, said Skwarek.
Now, they are pulling for Lazar’s recovery. Some estimate he was under water about 15 minutes. Firefighters aren’t sure, because they don’t know how long it took for someone to call 911.
At the request of Lazar’s family, Children’s Memorial Hospital declined to discuss his condition Monday. The child’s grandmother, Draga Bojanovic, said Sunday he showed signs of improvement.
Last Saturday was Lazarus Saturday, a special holiday for Serbian children.
His grandmother believes God was watching over Lazar.“Everybody got there so fast and worked hard,” said paramedic Bernie Ijimakin, who worked on the boy. “We just hope there’s a happy ending.”