MICHIGAN CITY — When Coolspring Township Volunteer Fire Chief Mick Pawlik was alerted Tuesday night of activity at the department's Safe Haven Baby Box, he assumed it was another case of someone opening the drawer out of curiosity or carrying out a prank.
Then his pulse began to race when he peeked through holes in the receiving side of the box, which is mounted in the wall at the station just southeast of Michigan City.
"I can see this sweatshirt and I seen a little bitty arm," he said. "I opened it up and that baby just looked me right in the eyes."
Pawlik said the baby remained calm and quiet as he and firefighter Nick Fekete scrambled around in the excitement of the moment in search of gloves that were right before them, resulting in Fekete being temporarily locked out of the building in the confusion.
"I'm all about kids," he said. "That's why I'm as elated as I am right now."
Medics arrived to recover a baby who appeared to be no more than an hour old.
"The umbilical cord was still on," Pawlik said. "The baby was not cleaned up yet."
The baby was taken by ambulance to Franciscan St. Anthony Health in Michigan City and appeared to be healthy and in good condition, county police said. The baby is reportedly in the care of the Indiana Department of Child Services.
Success of box is a personal joy for its creator
The baby is a 7-pound girl, according to Monica Kelsey, who created the Safe Haven Baby Box, which is one of only two in the nation. The other is located in her hometown of Woodburn, Indiana, where her husband serves as mayor.
"My heart is full for this little girl that is going to go on with her life," Kelsey said Wednesday morning. "My heart hurts for this mom as well."
The news was special for Kelsey not only because it is the first time a baby was dropped off in one of the boxes, thus affirming her fight last year with the state to keep them in operation, but also because she had been abandoned herself at a hospital in Montpelier, Ohio, in 1973 just two hours after she was born.
The LaPorte County 911 center received an alarm from the baby box at the unmanned fire station on County Road 400 North shortly before 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, and emergency responders arrived minutes later, according to county police.
"It worked flawlessly last night," Kelsey said.
The drawer is designed to silently contact 911 when it is opened, she said. Motion sensors contact 911 a second time when the baby is placed inside, and the person leaving the baby is given a third option of pushing a button to contact emergency officials.
The drawer has a heater to keep the baby warm and can only be opened from inside the building once it is closed with the baby inside, Kelsey said.
"The children are picked up in less than five minutes," she said.
Kelsey, who works as a volunteer firefighter in Woodburn and a medic 20 miles away in Fort Wayne, said she came up with the idea for the box after seeing similar versions while giving pro-life talks in South Africa. Finding a local builder was not easy at first.
"They thought I was crazy," she said. "'What do you mean a baby box?'"
Battle with state to save boxes
Her struggles continued when, after the boxes were installed in Coolspring Township and Woodburn in April 2016, Kelsey said the Indiana Department of Child Services challenged the legality of the boxes.
"We refused to shut them down and fought them all of last year," she said.
A spokesman with the Indiana Department of Child Services did not return a telephone call Wednesday for comment.
State law resolved the dispute July 1 by legalizing the two existing boxes and authorizing more to be installed at hospitals.
While state law had already allowed babies to be legally surrendered to officials at hospitals, and fire and police stations, Kelsey argued that a case of a baby dying after being left outside an Indianapolis hospital shows the need for a more anonymous alternative.
"Why did this mother not just walk in and hand this child over?" she asked. "It's very clear — she did not want her face to be seen."
The LaPorte County fire station was chosen as the second site for a baby box because seven babies have been abandoned within a 5-mile radius of Michigan City in the last 15 years, Kelsey said.
She is pursuing the installation of boxes next year in Ohio, to be followed by Pennsylvania, Georgia and Michigan.
Pawlik, who praised the decision to drop the baby off in the safe box, said there are no cameras at the site to identify who visits.
"That box is not there to judge people," he said.
Coolspring Assistant Fire Chief Warren Smith agreed.
"She stepped up to the plate and did the right thing," he said.