Whenever Clearwater police Officer Rich Edmonds has to respond to a call reporting a missing child, his heart stops for a second.
He can’t help but think of his own children — daughter Taylor, 3, and son Tressel, 6 — and whether they would know what to do if they ever wandered off. But ever since he told them about the lost little girl he helped reunite with her family on Clearwater Beach on Tuesday evening, his children have been hard at work planning what they would do if they ever got lost.
Edmonds wasn’t the only one who helped the 6-year-old Hannah. But he was the one who went viral: A photo of the officer walking hand-in-hand with the lost girl took off on Facebook.
“It melted my heart to see all the people who helped this scared little girl when it wasn’t their job to look out for her,” said Edmonds, 36. “She went from tears to smiles in a matter of minutes.”
The photo was taken by yoga instructor Amy Amerell on the beach while the officer was walking the girl back to her mother. It went viral after it was shared on the Clearwater Police Department Facebook page.
Edmonds, a towering figure in full uniform, made the girl laugh with stories about his own children and his extensive knowledge of the characters from Frozen that were printed on her T-shirt.
The photo had been “liked” more than 1,000 times by Friday evening. But Edmonds said the real hero Friday was the woman who spotted Hannah running alone on a northern residential stretch of beach, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Hannah had been on her own for about 10 minutes before she wandered up to the woman, who was at the beach with her family. When Edmonds and his partner, Officer Ryan Bianca, arrived a few minutes after the woman called 911, Hannah was happily sipping a juice box with the other children.
When Edmonds began to walk the girl back to the street and his police cruiser, she got scared. Put off by the thought of a crying child in the back of his squad car, Edmonds instead walked her the half mile to her family, who were waiting with a lifeguard near a Frenchy’s restaurant. Clearwater police did not identify her family, or her last name.
Edmonds has been an officer for three years. He spent eight years beforehand working as a social studies and gym teacher at Dunedin High School and Palm Harbor Middle School. Law enforcement isn’t that much different from teaching, he said. Both professions hinge on helping others.
“We all love little kids,” he said, “and it’s an especially good feeling any time we get to help them or their families.”
Edmonds says the photo is “cute.” He’s more hopeful that it will encourage parents to form a plan with their children in case they get separated. Children should know to look for a lifeguard on the beach, police officer in uniform or a family with children like the one that helped Hannah, he said.
Contact Anastasia Dawson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.