An officer, wife, mother, daughter, granddaughter, sister, cousin, and friend.
My cousin, Erin Sweeney Hehl, was killed on October 30, 1997. My mother called me at my apartment, very upset, and all I could make out was that Erin was in a crash, there were no survivors, and that I needed to drive to a close suburb to be with “Aunt Lottie”, my grand aunt, Erin’s grandmother. I was numb as I got in my car.
Erin was just 5 years older than me. She died at 34, leaving a husband and a 3 year old son behind. It just didn’t seem right. She had everything going for her. While our families weren’t the closest, I do remember gatherings either at her grandparents’ house or at her parents’ house. Since Erin was the youngest of my three cousins in this family, it was easier to relate and talk to her. When you are 8 and the oldest of the three is 17, well, you aren’t going to get them to play any board games! Erin always tried to find time for me when I was visiting.
The funeral and gravesite were overwhelming. I found my place in a pew up in the front of Holy Name Cathedral. The immediate family and friends that spoke managed to keep it together long enough to say what they wanted to say about Erin. They did her proud! They also closed the expressway that day as we made our way to the cemetery to say our goodbyes. What an eerie feeling it is to drive on the Dan Ryan in downtown Chicago in the middle of the day – no cars in front of you or around you. Officers from all over the country came to pay their respects. They were in the hundreds, from over 100 police agencies. What an absolutely wonderful community of officers! They certainly take care of their own.
If the outpouring of officers and friends or the 5 mile long, 700 car procession to the cemetery didn’t get you, the gravesite service did. What a class act by the police during a horrible time. I thought I was keeping it together until they did a flyby with the helicopters. Nope. Someone give me a box of kleenex and let me sit down. It seemed so crappy and surreal all at the same time.
Even now, I cannot hear bagpipes without thinking of that day.
From the Officer Down Memorial Page:
Trooper Erin Hehl was killed when the helicopter she was in crashed during a training exercise. Sergeant Hehl was flying with a contractor pilot at suburban Frankfort Airport in Illinois State Police helicopter AirOne. They were practicing touch-and-go landings when one of the skids of the A-Star Eurocopter got stuck in mud, causing the helicopter to flip over. The civilian pilot was killed as well. Sergeant Hehl had 70 hours of flight experience, but it is unknown who was at the controls at the time of the crash.
Trooper Hehl is an 11 year veteran of the Illinois State Police. She enrolled in the Illinois State Police Academy in 1986. She began her career in District 3 (now District Chicago), and joined the State Police Marine Patrol in 1987. During her tenure with the ISP Marine Unit, Trooper Hehl became a certified diver. She was reassigned to road duties in 1991, and joined the department helicopter project in 1995. This made her the first female trooper to serve on sea, land and[sic] air. Trooper Hehl received a private pilot certificate with a helicopter rating in September, 1997.
Trooper Hehl is survived by her husband, son and a stepson. After her death, Trooper Hehl was promoted to Sergeant.
Some memories from the Officer Down Memorial Page:
Sgt Hehl, you were and are a shinning example of all that is good about Law Enforcement. Rest in Peace.
It is your 50th Birthday Erin. You would be retired at the end of this month. Brendon is in his first year of college at your alma mater. What a time we would have! I miss you now as always. I will see you on the other side, until then please watch over us. Happy Birthday.
Erin- it is almost your birthday and this year as every year I find myself thinking of what I would have gotten for you. It never changes… I still wish for that lifetime of happiness and laughter, friendship and fun that we always had. You are forever in my thoughts, and are dearly missed. Over 36 years have passed and I still remember the day we met. You were my sister from another mother.
It was always a pleasure working with you. I especially remember the later months when you were pregnant with your son Brendan and you were assigned to desk duty. We spent many shifts together working, laughing and eating at the District 4 Operations desk. We had our “food fests” and always joked that Brendan was eating all of it. I enjoyed hearing your stories of your time working with the Marine Unit and meeting your husband Bob. I also remember when you came to work wearing a beautiful black Tag Heuer diver watch that Bob had bought you, with a men’s version for himself. I bought the same watch for myself and think of you whenever I check the time. Bob was fortunate to have found a wife like you, even for such a short time. You were caring, loyal, honest, and an all around good person. I wish there were more people like you in the world. Whenever I think of that tragic day of Oct 30, 1997, I still get all misty eyed. I pray that your family has found peace with the passing of time.
Rest in peace, Erin. You are still in our hearts and prayers.
Comrades Gather to Salute Spirit of State Police Pilot - This article gives you a glimpse into Erin and the outpouring of support at the funeral.
St. Jude’s Memorial March, 2013
Police Week service in Park Ridge, 2012