HOWELL — Steve Eckel cleared out his car for a shopping trip Monday, but left one item behind: a sledgehammer.
“I thought to myself, I’ll just put it in the garage later,” Eckel, 53, said.
His oversight may have literally proved to be a lifesaver.
Eckel, who retired from the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office in 2013 after a 25-year-career, was heading to the Kohl’s store while three of his six children went shopping for cosmetics.
In the parking lot, Eckel was walking past a woman named Sarah Mazzone, 30, when both heard a baby’s cry, according to Eckel and Howell police.
Both then spotted the infant in a nearby parked vehicle, Eckel said.
“I ran up and tried to open the doors but they were locked,” the Jackson resident said.
Then he remembered the sledgehammer in the back of his vehicle. He ran to retrieve it and then returned to the vehicle with the baby inside as Mazzone, of Howell, called police, Eckel said.
“I tried breaking the window, I hit the corner and it just shattered,” he said. The baby “was red like a tomato, her extremities were just bright red.”
Mazzone moistened a corner of her shirt and cooled the baby down as police headed to the air-conditioned Kohl’s store, where Mazzone and Eckel had brought her, police said.
Eckel was especially concerned, he said, because he feared the temperature inside the vehicle would rise rapidly in the summer afternoon heat.
“The temperature can go up 20 degrees even in 10 minutes on a 90-degree day,” he said.
The fully clothed four-month-old “appeared to be in a great deal of distress” and was sweating profusely on a day when midday temperatures reached into the upper 80s, according to police.
Mazzone and Eckel stayed with the child until the mother, Karen B. Gruen, returned, he said. Gruen had two other young children with her.
Gruen, 33, of Lakewood, “began to panic” when she returned to her vehicle and the infant was not there, police said. The baby had spent 40 minutes inside the car but was in much better condition after being brought into the air-conditioned store, police also said.
Gruen was charged with endangering the welfare of a child and was released pending a court appearance. The baby was turned over to the custody of her father.
“I recognize the civilians who took immediate action to rescue this child, for they truly saved a life,” Chief of Police Andrew Kudrick said.
During his career in law enforcement, Eckel said he had been involved in medical emergencies before, but had never come to the aid of an infant.
“The bottom line is it’s about being human,” he said.