- Associated Press - Thursday, August 11, 2016

SYCAMORE, Ill. (AP) - A crowd gathered Aug. 1 at the Sycamore Fire Station to watch 3-year-old Alaya Ochoa, with a wide, toothy smile on her face, climb into the driver’s seat of an ambulance - a sight that was especially gratifying since just last month, the young girl was being whisked away in the back of one of the very same vehicles.

Sycamore Fire Chief Pete Polarek on Aug. 1 honored the nine responding sheriff’s deputies and Sycamore firefighters, and one bystander, who helped free Ochoa from a car submerged in 4 feet of water July 6.

Ochoa was in her car seat in the back seat of a Hyundai sedan that drove off the side of a bridge and landed upside down in a creek, triggering a frantic effort to free her. Sycamore resident John DeNapoli, who witnessed the accident, attempted to flip over the car, then called 911 shortly after to report that a vehicle had gone off the road and was underwater west of Sycamore.

“They got there, they quickly assessed the scene. They confirmed what John had found and attempted what they could with what they had at hand, which was basically arm strength and some rope,” Polarek said.

Ochoa’s mother, Quaesha Johnson, was two months pregnant at the time. She managed to free herself from the car, but Ochoa remained submerged in the water for nearly 10 minutes.

But on Aug. 1, Ochoa was with her mother and Johnson’s boyfriend, Robert Riley, looking healthy as ever in her yellow dress, white hair bows and matching shoes that swung happily throughout the meeting.

“Everything happens for a reason, and if there was a reason that this had to happen then I’m blessed that this happened,” Johnson said. “And I’m blessed that (Alaya) got out of it and was a strong little 3-year-old to get through this. It was hard. Too hard. I don’t think any parent should go through this. Parents lose children every day. And to come this close to it, I can’t stomach it. Not one bit. I don’t think anybody needs to lose a child.”

Standing no more than 3 feet tall, Ochoa was all smiles and high-pitched giggles at the fire station, where the family met with the first responders for cake and ice cream. The girl packed a lot of punch for someone who officers and family were afraid might not survive such a damaging crash. On July 6, Ochoa was flown from Kishwaukee Hospital to Central DuPage Hospital and put in a medically induced coma.

“A lot of people don’t come back from it, or they don’t come back to their normal selves,” Johnson said. “Alaya’s just like she was - like nothing ever happened, and that’s what I’m so happy about. I stare at her all day after this. I stared at her before - but to know that I have her all safe, she’s right here in my face playing and talking, and she says, ‘Mommy, I love you.’ “

Johnson isn’t the only person for whom Ochoa has expressed her love. On the car ride from the City Council meeting to the fire station, the toddler let out an emphatic “Mommy, I love them,” in appreciation of the officers and firefighters who saved her life, Johnson said.

“It just makes us so happy,” Ward said. “I think when we took her to the hospital, we didn’t know. She was unconscious. We performed CPR. It couldn’t make us any happier to see her here tonight, walking around.”

Fully recovered, Ochoa has a lot of life ahead of her, including becoming a big sister, Johnson said.

“I’ll watch her grow. I’ll watch her get married, and have children and get educated - all of that. I’m able to get that back,” Johnson said. “I almost lost it, and I’m just blessed that I am getting it back.”

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Source: The (DeKalb) Daily Chronicle, https://bit.ly/2ay6xMl

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Information from: The Daily Chronicle, https://www.daily-chronicle.com

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