Tri-state rescue teams waited nearly four hours for the Live at 6 News Team cruiser to arrive before pulling 4-year-old Autumn Yancy from a storm drain on Monday.
Rescue squads from area police and fire stations were under orders not to act until reporters were on the scene to highlight their life-saving efforts, and garner much-needed positive publicity in the wake of several recent foul-ups, particularly a multi-force raid on a grandmother's 90th birthday party two weeks ago that resulted in her stroking-out.
Officials said the child was "probably" not in serious danger after falling into the drain at about 3:30 p.m., although she was screaming at the top of her lungs. Fire chief Wex Middleberg said the cries were more "from fear than pain."
"It's times like this when years of training kicks in," Middleberg said. "Our expert opinion was that she was just scared from being in a dark, tight spot, so you turn a deaf ear and wait it out.
"Normally, the film crew is Johnny-on-the-spot, but it's a Monday and they're shorthanded. I totally understand. We've all got our problems."
The somewhat cute brunette followed a kitty into the storm drain near the Yancy's affordable housing in Backwater Township, then became lodged. Her help cries echoed throughout the drain, causing neighborhood residents to hide their stolen property and drugs before alerting 911, fearing random searches when law enforcement descended on the area.
"Truth be told, the storm drain was a lot less cramped than her family's dingy apartment," Middleberg said. "I hope she enjoyed it down there."
Middleberg said the rescuers sang the child songs and threw jerky treats in her direction in hopes of keeping her from going stark raving mad. However, it was crucial that she kept crying in order for Live at 6 News Team microphones to record the panic in her voice.
"You don't want to pull her out and have her smiling for the cameras," one longtime policeman said. "We've pretty much got this shit down to a science.
"The last thing you want is to rescue the kid before the media arrives, then rip her from her mother's arms, throw her back in the storm drain and re-enact the scene. That'll get you sued."
Middleberg said the rescue teams caught a break because Yancy's parents are estranged and the mother, who was supposed to watch the child, was passed out in front of the TV. The father could not be located.
"That gave us a couple extra hours to play with," Middleberg said.
When the Live at 6 News Team cruiser showed up around 7:15 p.m., the rescue went on without a hitch.
"I think we scored some public-relations points today," a police spokesman said. "It was a team effort. We didn't rush in to save little Autumn until everything was in place. The child is safe and back home. Her mother never even knew she was gone."
Area police officials said they would've preferred to delay the rescue even longer and show off the department's new klieg lighting system, but Live at 6 News Team news director Prince Cooper said the unit needed to leave to cover a tap-dancing panda bear, and couldn't wait for total darkness.
"Oh, well," one policeman said. "You win some, you lose some."
Cooper said his station is glad to cooperate with police and fire departments in such dramatic situations, and hopes for a bump in its ratings and audience.
"Glad this story happened, because up until then, it was a pretty slow news day," Cooper said. "And lucky for the kid that we weren't off covering a basketball game, or she might still be in that drain waiting for the next news cycle to run."