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EGLE detective charges into swamp, crawls through wrecked vehicle to save a life

Holly Pennoni stands in gray Conservation Officer uniform against the backdrop of an American flagCovered in mud and wrestling defibrillator pads onto an unconscious man in the wrecked interior of an SUV in a swamp wasn't how Holly Pennoni envisioned her morning commute.

But the detective, who enforces environmental and conservation laws for EGLE and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), was in the right place at the right time to save a life the morning of May 18.

Pennoni was on her way to EGLE's Cadillac district office when she noticed a Ford Flex driving erratically on 33rd Road in Cherry Grove Township just southwest of Cadillac. She figured the driver was either drunk or having a medical issue. But before she could activate her lights and siren for a traffic stop, the vehicle veered off the shoulder and crashed into a swampy ditch.

Pennoni dialed 911 and rushed to assist. Muck flying from the still-spinning wheels splattered the detective as she jumped into the ditch and unsuccessfully tried to open the locked doors or get a response from the driver. Racing to her vehicle she returned with a window-punch tool, successfully smashing a passenger side window and -- with the help of another good Samaritan -- pried a thicket of bushes and a small tree away from the car to crawl in, turn the engine off, and assess the driver.

"He was unconscious, but had a very faint pulse," Pennoni recalled. Struggling in the cramped confines of the vehicle, she reclined the driver's seat, attached the driver to an Automatic Emergency Defibrillator in case his heart stopped completely, and performed rescue breathing with an Ambu-bag until paramedics arrived.

Afterward, a State Police officer on the scene suggested she might want to get cleaned up. Only then she noticed, "…I was a mess. I was picking leaves out of my hair, mud out of my ears, I was splattered!"

Later, she realized the man was a neighbor on her street.

"He's still in the hospital, but he's doing good," Pennoni said Wednesday. They are running tests to try and determine the cause of the man's blackout, but haven't reached any firm conclusions.

She credits her emergency training and equipment with providing her the skills and tools she need to remain focused during the chaos. Even though in-person training was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she continued to take online first aid and other trainings.

While she's an EGLE employee, she is managed and supervised through the DNR's Environmental Investigations Section. EGLE detectives are conservation officers who focus on enforcing environmental laws.

And as a duly sworn law enforcement officer, she often assists local law enforcement in responding to emergencies of all types -- particularly in rural areas where she may be closest to the scene of an incident.

Citizens may report environmental crimes or emergencies to the state hotline, 800-292-4706.

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