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Community Close Up: LaSalle-Peru's River Rescue Squad

Mike Moen

The LaSalle-Peru area is known for tourist attractions, namely Starved Rock State Park. It’s also home to a river rescue team that claims to be one of the oldest in the country. This volunteer group has served the community for more than 60 years.

Inside the garage of the Peru Rescue Station, Lt. Commander Larry Haupt is working with a piece of sonar equipment attached to a boat.

He eventually pulls up an image taken during a recent training session.

“There was presumably a safe that was thrown out here, and we were out there looking for it, and we thought we might have found it” Haput said as he points at the image in the water.

The safe, reported missing in a robbery, was resting on the bottom of the Illinois River, which runs through the LaSalle-Peru area. The Rescue Station is located along the banks of the river.

The team does a lot more than look at discarded safes while it trains. They prepare for intense situations. Members are often called in to work with various departments and agencies when there’s a need to rescue, or in tragic cases, recover someone from this big river or a nearby waterway. No matter the situation, officials like Commander Larry Radochonski say this group of dedicated individuals is always prepared for the task at hand.

“It’s a lot of work. We do a lot of training. We maintain the equipment. So it’s not just like in a once a month organization” the Commander said.

Radochonski says a lot of calls originate from emergencies at the Starved Rock lock and dam.  

“Unfortunately, a lot of people that come there to fish or to enjoy the water don’t realize the current involved, the depth of the water and how severe water could be” Radochonski said.

While fire departments have become equipped to deal with trouble on the water, the Peru Rescue Station is still open, ready to help when needed. Radochonski says members have a true understanding of what it means to do this volunteer work. He tells the story of how a senior member told him why he joined. It happened after the death of one his children in a drowning accident.

“He told me that several months after that, individuals from the rescue [station] would call to see if we was doing okay. A year went by, he told his wife he wanted to join” Radochonski said. 

Radochonski says the support they feel from the community comes through the donations. The rescue team relies on financial help from residents to stay operational. It’s been that way since the group was formed in the late 1940’s, after the mayor of Peru drowned in an apparent suicide.

Retired member Augie Wilke knows a lot about the hostory of the squad.  

Credit Mike Moen / WNIJ

“A lot of the guys worked for the city. The called themselves river rats. There was no such thing as boaters then. You were either a river rat or nothing” Wilke said.

While current members have to maintain equipment, Wilke remembers when they had to make the gear they used.

“They made everything, even during my time. The grappling hooks, everything was made” Wilke said.

Wilke says he even helped build the unit’s original station, which stands right alongside the new one.

Not only has the Peru Rescue Station moved into a newer building in recent years, the scope of the organization has evolved. Treasurer Dave Haupt says they do a lot of other things now.

“We help with local childrens events and we partner with several other organizations” Haupt said.

The station also hosts an event each year honoring Pearl Harbor survivors.

Out in the community, people like Mary Kay Sadnick take pride knowing there’s a volunteer group dedicated to this type of work. Even though the images were frightening, she proudly remembers as a child seeing the men perform a difficult task.

“I remember how dedicated they were in the cold weather to go out and look for the bodies” Sadnick said.

A difficult task still being performed today.

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