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Tragedy to Triumph: Former Cleveland police officer recalls rescue of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight

Anthony Espada officially identified the three missing women and helped free them from the 'house of horrors' on Seymour Avenue.

CLEVELAND — "May 6 was a pretty much normal day," Former Cleveland Police Officer Anthony Espada recalls of that spring 2013 afternoon. "It was a beautiful day. I think it was in the 70s."

Espada remembers the day like yesterday. He was near West Side Market with his partner, Officer Mike Tracy, when they got the call.

"We got that 'Code 1' call coming down that there was a female on the phone, that her name was Amanda Berry, saying that she had been kidnapped for 10 years and that she's been missing," Espada says. "We got to Seymour [Avenue], we made the left hand turn, and we saw a crowd. I kept on looking at Mike and asking, 'Is it her? Is it her?' and as soon as we started getting closer, I see this female holding a child."

They knew it was Amanda Berry — her eyebrow ring gave it away, Espada said.

"She was just pale and thin," Espada remembered. "Just for confirmation, I asked her her name, and she said her name was Amanda Berry.

"It was, like, an unbelievable feeling. All those years of her being missing and now she's standing right there in front of you, alive."

Amanda kept pointing to 2207 Seymour, and the officers thought Ariel Castro — their captor — was still inside. Espada ran to the house and tried to get the screen door open, but there was a chain welded from the door to the door frame. He then crawled through the same space where Amanda had escaped minutes prior.

"I immediately saw stairs off to my right," Espada said. "There was a[n] outdoor swing set that was blocking the stairwell, preventing anyone from going upstairs or coming down. But I went ahead and just grabbed the swing set and, with all my strength, I just pulled it just enough where a person could walk in between the swing set."

Espada started going up the stairs with his gun pulled calling "Cleveland police!" but he says everything was quiet.

"There was a curtain that was blocking the second floor, so I couldn't see behind the curtain," he told 3News. "I didn't know if Ariel Castro was behind the curtain waiting for me, but we had to take that chance and open the curtain and see what was behind the curtain."

He flicked it open. No one was there, but he saw a big open area filled with toys, and it was quiet and dark.

"Then off to the left, there was a door open. It was a bedroom with a light on, with a mattress on the floor," he said. "I saw a head peak around the door jamb of the open door, and I looked and she looked at me, and I'm looking at her and we are kind of at a standoff, looking at each other. And she wasn't moving; she was staring at us.

"I yelled out 'Cleveland police!' and without warning, she started charging, running towards me, jumped onto me — had her arms [around] my neck, legs around my waste — and screaming in my face, 'You saved us! You saved us! My name is Michelle Knight. I've been here 11 years.I've been here for 11 years,' and I thought I was holding a child because of how small she is.

"I was at a loss for words. I didn't know what to say.”

Then, Espada saw a shadow go across another doorway.

"I knew who it was immediately," he admitted. "She was pale and thin, and she was standing there and she was afraid to come out, like she was going to get in trouble.

"She stood there and I walked up to her ... I asked her what her name was, and she said, 'My name is Georgina De Jesus.' I told her, 'We've been looking for you for a long time,' and I told her she was safe."

With too many emotions to count, Espada took a moment before he could broadcast to his colleagues whom he'd found.

"I keyed the mic, and I said, 'Two Adam 23 to radio: We found 'em. We found 'em.'"

Espada is now retired from the police force after serving for 25 years. He keeps the date and time of the rescue tattooed on his arm.

"They basically changed my life," he says of the three women. "Not only changed my life, but changed their lives."

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