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Rescuers break window to save elderly couple after car goes over Dunedin seawall

DUNEDIN — As his boat started out from Dunedin Marina, Courtney Douthit glanced back to a shock Sunday.

A Mercury Marquis accelerated from a parking space, over the seawall and into the harbor. A couple in their 80s were inside.

Douthit halted his boat and jumped into 6 feet of water. He was joined by two others, and they saved the couple by shattering the car's rear window with a fire extinguisher and their bare hands, and pulling them out as they sank.

"It could have been your grandparents, that's part of the deal," said Douthit, an electrician and part-time fishing guide. "We were there at perfect timing."

Joseph Schlesselman, 89, and his wife, Ruth, 86, had come to the marina Sunday afternoon to watch the boats.

Joseph Schlesselman began to park in a handicapped space, but hit the gas instead of the brake, authorities said. Their car jumped the seawall and landed in an empty boat slip, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office said.

That triggered a dramatic rescue by Douthit, 32, of Dunedin, Joseph Sentelik, 48, of Land O'Lakes and Eric Corum, 42, of Tarpon Springs.

"Definitely true heroes," said Dunedin Fire Rescue Division Chief Bill McElligott.

Nancy Williams, a manager at the Bon Appetit restaurant across the street, saw the car being parked as she went to a storage room. She heard a scrape and looked again to see the car accelerating over concrete parking blocks. The car teetered on the seawall a moment. Then it gunned into the water.

She said she ran inside, yelling to co-workers to call 911.

As the rescuers tried to get in the car, she ran outside and saw the couple.

"They were trying to keep their mouths open above the water," she said.

Finally, Douthit smashed the rear window with an extinguisher from his boat. Sentelik peeled the shattered glass away with his hands. The rescuers managed to push the seat belt button and pull the couple out.

The husband appeared to have scraped his head and left behind a prosthetic leg, Douthit said.

"I'm an electrician. I see a lot of stuff that could lead to people's deaths, but not that close," he said.

The Sheriff's Office said the couple received minor injuries. A woman who answered the couple's phone declined comment.

Sentelik was cut from the glass and taken to an emergency room for treatment.

Douthit ended his day with his wife, Meredith, and son, Gabriel, 2, the way he had intended.

Fishing.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

CTS Towing of Clearwater lifts a Mercury Marquis out of the water at the Dunedin Marina on Sunday. Joseph Schlesselman and his wife were in the car when it went over the seawall.

JOSEPH GARNETT JR. | Times

CTS Towing of Clearwater lifts a Mercury Marquis out of the water at the Dunedin Marina on Sunday. Joseph Schlesselman and his wife were in the car when it went over the seawall.

Rescuers break window to save elderly couple after car goes over Dunedin seawall 08/29/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 30, 2010 10:45am]
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