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Driver's sinking was more than just a feeling

(ran East, South, West, Seminole editions)

Connie Kalter left work early on Feb. 3, the day of the downpour that flooded streets and homes around the county.

Plowing through water-covered back streets in north St. Petersburg, Kalter tried to navigate what she thought was an apartment complex's parking lot.

But the water kept getting deeper.

And deeper.

"I thought I was just in higher water. I knew I wasn't in the road when I saw the duck swim by," said Kalter, a Clearwater resident who works in a dentist's office.

She had driven into a 92nd Avenue N retention pond that had become virtually invisible across the flooded landscape.

Water started coming in through the floorboards of the 2003 Toyota Tundra she was driving.

"Everything's getting wet. I looked up and here's this guy from the apartment complex swimming toward me," said Kalter, 42.

Paul Barnes said he was drinking coffee with his wife when he happened to look out the window of his Gateway Place apartment, 9101 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N.

He saw the truck and decided he had better go help.

"I'm a husband and father," said Barnes, 23. "If my wife or son was involved, I'd want someone to help them."

So he charged into the rain and into the pond.

"I jumped in. I'm 6 feet 4, and I couldn't touch the bottom," Barnes said.

Swimming toward the truck, he saw its nose beginning to dip like a doomed ship at sea.

Meanwhile, Kalter's day was growing rapidly more precarious.

She rolled the window down and water began pouring in. She rolled it back up.

Said Barnes: "I told her, your truck is going to sink either way. We'd probably prefer it not to sink with you in it."

Back down went the window.

"I unbuckled the seat belt. I almost got a leg out and water tried to push me back in. That's when he grabbed me and pulled me out," Kalter said.

She began swimming, Barnes helping her along. The truck went down like the Titanic.

"I turned around and it was gone," Kalter said.

Once ashore, some workers from the Hair Place, 9027 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, helped Kalter dry off and gave her coffee. Kalter called her boyfriend, who owns the truck.

One of the stylists had some advice. "She said, "If he comes in here talking about that truck, he's not the right guy for you,' " Kalter said.

Barnes drifted away after the rescue. A few days later, he was modest about his role. "It really wasn't a big deal," he said.

Kalter called him "my hero man."

Through spokesman Bill Proffitt, the St. Petersburg Police Department called Barnes' action "a commendable deed."

Kalter's boyfriend, Keith Lonsberry, picked her up at the Hair Place.

His first words through the door:

"Oh, Connie, are you okay? Don't worry about the truck."