Saturday, July 21, 2018
Public safety

When your car plunges into the water, what are the odds of rescue?

When the gold Honda Accord plunged into the murky waters of the pond, a grim clock started ticking for three teenage girls inside. The odds were already stacked against them.

The stolen car veered off a narrow road in a St. Petersburg cemetery at 3:48 a.m. on March 31, dispatch records show. Two Pinellas sheriff's deputies following the car said they waded into the mucky, weed-choked water but turned back.

It was too dangerous to try to reach those inside the sinking car, they decided.

Within eight minutes, records show, the car was completely submerged. When a wrecker pulled the Honda out two hours later, the girls were dead inside.

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Their deaths led to a war of words between grieving families, activists and Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri over the actions of the deputies who were there that night.

But the incident also highlights this harsh reality: experts say in many cases first-responders will be unable to reach a submerged vehicle in time to rescue those inside.

The challenges are too many, the dangers too great, and the time too limited.

But Tampa Bay firefighting agencies are starting to invest in the training and equipment needed to rescue victims faster.

More people die in submerged cars in Florida than in any other state, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. A 2014 Orlando Sentinel review found there were 49 vehicle drownings between 2008 and 2012.

The hard reality, experts say, is that the best hope for survival lies with the occupants themselves.

"In order for these incidents to have any kind of good outcome, probably the most important thing is for them to disengage the seat belt and open a window," said Gerald Dworkin, a water safety and rescue consultant in Maine.

Conditions can vary dramatically, but generally it takes a minute or less for water to rise high enough to press the car's windows against the door frame, making them impossible to open. Doors won't open until the water level inside is equal to the level outside, but by then "you're already gone," Dworkin said.

Air pockets can form inside vehicles, buying occupants some time. Experts encourage motorists to carry a window punch that can shatter tempered glass on side windows.

But for those unable to escape themselves, who find themselves trapped, their only hope is help from outside.

First-responders who see a vehicle entering the water and believe they can safely reach it will usually jump into the war, officials say. But standard procedure for most agencies is to call in what they call a "dive team."

Three Pinellas agencies have scuba divers: the Sheriff's Office, Clearwater Fire Rescue and St. Petersburg Fire Rescue. But it takes time for them to respond. Divers have to be pulled off their regular assignments, said East Lake Fire Rescue Chief Tom Jamison.

"You're looking at 45 minutes before a diver gets in the water," Jamison said.

Last year, East Lake trained more than a dozen of its firefighters to rescue people from submerged vehicles. Its water extrication team was the first of its kind in Pinellas.

The department bought five rapid diver systems that include a tank, regulator and buoyancy bag attached to a harness. They cost about $2,500 apiece, can be quickly donned and allow divers to squeeze into tight spaces.

Firefighters and paramedics reach most scenes within five minutes, Jamison said. So it makes sense to have as many devices — and certified divers trained to use them — as possible.

"That leaves you in a much better situation to have a rescue," he said, "instead of a recovery."

To make faster rescues possible throughout the county, Pinellas officials are exploring banding the county's 19 firefighting agencies together to form dive teams, pay for their equipment and train them, said Assistant County Administrator John Bennett.

"You're not going to wait for a full dive unit," he said. "You're going to get into water as fast as you can and try to make a rescue ..."

Clearwater Fire Rescue and St. Petersburg Fire Rescue each have two rapid diver systems. Clearwater's divers can be in the water within seven minutes, said Assistant Fire Chief Kent Watts.

"Some of my guys are driving me crazy about this equipment," Watts said. "They want it on the (rescue trucks) yesterday."

In Hillsborough County, the Sheriff's Office and Tampa Fire Rescue both have dive teams. But only Tampa Fire Rescue has rapid diver systems.

Tampa Fire Capt. Cory Schumacher was wearing one the morning of July 31, 2015, when he jumped into the bay to rescue the occupants of a car that plunged off the Courtney Campbell Causeway. One teen escaped. Two others died.

Schumacher got in the water 15 minutes after the call was dispatched. The car was 12 feet deep and upside down. He had to feel around with his hands in near zero visibility and was able to pull the two occupants out. But they were later pronounced dead at the hospital.

"The only way I was able to get into the vehicle is because we had that rapid diver (system)," Schumacher said.

Hillsborough Deputy Scott Jones, who leads the sheriff's dive team, said his team keeps their standard scuba equipment in their official vehicles. In an emergency, he said, they'll don the gear over their uniforms and hit the water.

Jones has nine divers on his team. He wants more, but it's hard to find people who are willing to train, get certified and face whatever lies beneath the water's surface.

"At our last tryout we had three people try out and one guy made it," he said. "It takes a certain breed of person."

Sometimes, first-responders decide a water rescue is too treacherous to attempt.

When the Accord entered the water on March 31, a member of the Pinellas sheriff's dive team was right there — but he didn't have his scuba gear with him. Gualtieri said the deputy decided it was too dangerous to enter the dark, swampy water. St. Petersburg Fire Rescue arrived next.

The sheriff's dive team and a wrecker were called 20 minutes after the car entered the water. Ten minutes after that, the sheriff and firefighter commanders on-scene declared it a recovery mission — not a rescue mission.

Officials said those in the car — Dominique Battle, 16, and 15-year-olds Ashaunti Butler and LaNiya Miller — could not be saved.

"We have to take our safety into consideration, as well," said St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Lt. Steve Lawrence. "(Deputies) were getting stuck just trying to walk in."

Gualtieri said he'll consider acquiring rapid diver systems for his deputies, but he doubts those would have made a difference on March 31.

"The divers who went in there said it was the worst environment they'd ever experienced," the sheriff said. "You can be prepared for a lot of things, but you can't be prepared for everything all the time."

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.

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