By Jessica Moore

ELMWOOD PARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — There was a dramatic rescue Thursday afternoon in Elmwood Park after a mother and her toddler ended up in the freezing waters of the Passaic River.

It’s a story of heroism of the most basic and beautiful kind. A police officer put his life on the line for two complete strangers in a desperate situation, CBS2’s Jessica Moore reports.

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There was a dramatic rescue Feb. 4, 2021, in Elmwood Park after a mother and her toddler ended up in the freezing waters of the Passaic River. (Credit: CBS2)

A crack in the ice leads to the middle of the Passaic River, 50 yards from shore, between Paterson and Elmwood Park. There’s now a gaping hole in the ice — a veritable death trap for a mom and her 2-year-old daughter around 1:30 p.m.

“She was holding the baby. They were walking in the middle of the river. I said, ‘What is she doing in the middle of the river?’ Next thing you know, I didn’t see both of them. They were inside the water,” a witness said. “She was struggling. I kept telling her to stand still, but she was scared and afraid … I couldn’t help much because it was too dangerous. I’m still wet.”

Onlookers called 911.

“She was basically holding the baby with one arm and keeping herself afloat with the other,” Elmwood Park Police Chief Michael Foligno said.

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Foligno raced to the scene.

“Thirty seconds felt like 10 minutes. The mother was screaming. She said she couldn’t hold the child anymore. I couldn’t sit still and do nothing,” Foligno said.

Wearing his uniform and without any apparatus, he got a canoe from the nearby gas station, CBS2’s Ali Bauman reports.

“I jumped in it and I just basically clawed my way to the center,” Foligno said.

Watch Jessica Moore’s report —

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He used a shovel to make his way to the center of the frozen river and pull the 2-year-old girl and mother to safety, using his own body heat to keep the baby warm.

“I reached in and grabbed the baby first to pull her away from the mother, and I guess instinctively, she just wouldn’t let go, so I had to pull really hard to get her into the boat,” Foligno said.

Paramedics later said the toddler’s body temperature was in the mid-80s.

Firefighters eventually made their way across the ice and pulled the canoe to shore.

Video shows the aftermath of the rescue as the woman is carted off on a stretcher, her little girl close behind.

“I can’t imagine how they lasted that long. For the 20 or 25 minutes I was out there in the boat with just water touching me, I was freezing,” Foligno said.

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The mom and toddler were taken to St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson and are expected to recover.

Investigators are still trying to get to the bottom of why the mom and daughter were on the river. The mom told the chief they were just trying to cross.

Police say it could have been a case of the woman thinking they could safely cross the frozen river, but there are still a lot of questions.

CBS2’s Ali Bauman contributed to this report.

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Jessica Moore