Local heroes become movie marvels

St. Charles County first responders celebrated on the silver screen for miraculous rescue in new film ‘Breakthrough’

By Brett Auten

Hitting theaters on Easter weekend, “Breakthrough” is based on the harrowing, yet uplifting, true story of a mother’s love in the face of impossible odds. When Joyce Smith’s adopted son John fell through an icy Lake St. Louis, all hope seemed lost. 

But as John lay lifeless, Joyce refused to give up. Her steadfast belief inspired those around her to continue to pray for John’s recovery, even in the face of every case history and scientific prediction.

On that night in January 2015, John Smith was underneath the ice for 15 minutes, with no oxygen. When EMS workers rescued him, he had no pulse. They rushed him to the emergency room and worked on him for another 45 minutes. The doctors could not bring him back to life. When they brought Joyce into the emergency room and she saw her son laid out on the table, dead, instead of saying goodbye, she grabbed his feet and said, ‘Holy Spirit please bring back my son right now!’ Immediately, the EKG machine began going off. John Smith not only just survived, but would return to school around 30 days after the accident.

And while the film is a reminder that faith and love can create a mountain of hope, and sometimes even a miracle, a cornerstone of the story was the unity between the area’s emergency response teams.

“It was all a team effort from the first responders all the way to the emergency room personnel,” Lake St. Louis Police Chief Chris DiGiuseppi said. “The bottom line is, there were multiple miracles on that day. I’m a faith-based guy and they had given up. They had called it and stopped recitation and yet, here we are.”

Lake St. Louis Firefighter Joe Morrow has lived in the area since he was in second grade and knows the lake like the back of his own hand. Morrow and Lake St. Louis Fire Department Captain Justin Darnell and firefighter/EMT Mike Terranova were some of the first to arrive on the scene. 

“Everything fit together perfectly,” Morrow said. “Our lake has both mud and rock bottom. Where John went in was all rock, which is so rare and made finding him so much easier. We found him probably within 30 seconds to a minute. There is only one scenario I can think of and it’s a miracle and we got to be a part of it.” 

Jeremey Hollrah is a deputy chief of the St. Charles County Ambulance District. Hollrah called that night one of those calls emergency personnel train for but hope they never have to run. 

“You are talking about a very high-stress situation,” Hollrah said. “But the collaboration between all of the agencies; fire, police, and EMT, was an impressive feat in itself.”

Hollrah was one of the first on the scene and was with John Smith until it was time for helicopter transportation to Cardinal Glennon. Hollrah was in the room when the miracle occurred. 

“I am a religious man and I am a believer,” Hollrah said. “His mother’s faith was impressive and her love for her son and God came together in that room.” 

For Wentzville Fire Protection District firefighter Tommy Shine, the filmmakers cast actor Mike Colter, best known for his title role in the Netflix series Marvel’s Luke Cage. 

“It took so many to make this a success,” Shine said. “You’re talking a minimum of 17-18 people and then once we got him to the hospital, a significant more amount of people.”

Shine and Morrow were in the icy water, searching with rescue poles. It was Shine who found John and pulled him to the surface.

“It was one of those things where you go with your gut and pull up,” Shine said. “I didn’t know if I had him so I didn’t want to get too excited and lo and behold as he got closer, I saw it was his shirt and I screamed, ‘We got him!’”

Shine’s character in the movie represents the doubters and the audience members that do not necessarily believe in miracles and viewers get to experience this film through Shine’s eyes.

“When you don’t have the answers and you read what the doctor wrote (it was written in the medical record: ‘Patient dead, mother prayed, patient came back to life.)  then what is it?” Shine said. “God can’t answer all prayers but we are blessed the outcome worked out the way it did. It’s a pretty amazing story. It was an unbelievable thing. I have no other explanation other than a miracle. His survivability was at one-percent if best.”

Producers prepped the real-life heroes that there would be a touch of Hollywood to the film. The family and those involved with the rescue got a first look at the film earlier this month in Des Perres. 

“I was truly impressed,” Hollrah said. “Outside of a little Hollywood flare, I thought it was very true to what we did.” 

As far as John Smith, the film’s director, Roxann Dawson, said that he has taken the experience and has allowed it to shape him and his future.

“He’s become an amazing spokesman for his own experience and I think he has touched so many lives as he continues to tell his story,” she said. “He’s a grateful and gracious young man. He’s truly amazing.”

Breakthrough is based on Joyce’s book, “The Impossible: The Miraculous Story of a Mother’s Love and Her Son’s Resurrection” and was shot in Winnipeg, Manitoba, over the course of 32 days. The release date is scheduled for April 17, Easter Weekend.

“We used every piece of training and knowledge and it didn’t get anywhere,” Lake St. Louis Fire Chief Clinton Gussner said.  “At the end of the day, it was an act of God. No other hand could have changed the outcome.”

CUTLINE: Photos courtesy St. Charles County Ambulance District

Cover-Movie1 Representatives from St. Charles County Ambulance District, Lake St. Louis Police, Lake St. Louis Fire Protection District and Wentzville Fire Protection District get the red carpet treatment at the premier of “Breakthrough” in Des Peres. 

Cover-Movie2 St. Charles County Ambulance District personnel involved in the call on the red carpet at the Des Peres premier of “Breakthrough” are (from left) Greg Pendleton, Ashley Pease, Rosalba Cirami, Jeremey Hollrah, Lisa Cassidy, Blake Gabbard and Rob Reed.  All are paramedics except for Hollrah, who is a deputy chief.

Cover-Movie3 “Breakthrough” production team, actors and family members were part of a dedication ceremony at Lake St. Louis. Pictured (from left) are director Roxann Dawson, actor Marcel Ruiz, actress Chrissy Metz, producer DeVon Franklin, Joyce Smith, Pastor Jason Noble and John Smith.

Cover-Movie4 First responders with the St. Charles County Ambulance District (from left)Lisa Cassidy, Blake Gabbard, Jeremey Hollrah stand with rescued survivor John Smith (holding plaque).