TAMPA — The new year got off to a dramatic start early Tuesday as Hillsborough deputies mounted a frantic search-and-rescue operation for a woman trapped in a car sinking into the muck off Interstate 4.
Deputies managed to pull 20-year-old Amanda Nicole Antonio from her upside down car, which rolled over into the chilly, muddy waters of a fog-covered ditch near the Florida State Fairgrounds.
Antonio called her family from the ambulance. Her mother, Wanda Guzman, rushed to Tampa General Hospital to find her oldest daughter shaking, bruised and safe.
"She told me, 'I thought I was going to die,'" Guzman, 44, said. "There must have been angels around her."
The incident started at about 3:52 a.m. Antonio was driving a 2008 Scion east on I-4, close to the U.S. 301 exit ramp. There, the Florida Highway Patrol said another vehicle cut her off. She lost control and the Scion veered off the road and rolled into a water-filled ditch.
Antonio found a pocket of air inside the car, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, and called 911.
"The (dispatch) center could hear the desperation in her voice," sheriff's spokesman Danny Alvarez said.
But the car was sinking. Cold water seeped inside and started rising. Soon, 13 sheriff's vehicles raced up and down I-4 trying to find the submerged vehicle. Alvarez said conditions made the search difficult: a dense fog reflected the deputies' lights back at them.
"They knew the girl was drowning and they were desperate to find her," Alvarez said. "Imagine you're hearing this on the radio, it's foggy and you can't find her ... that kind of pressure, that kind of stress, was intense."
But Antonio managed to give the 911 dispatcher just enough information to help deputies get closer.
Deputy Ryan Cooper spotted the back right corner of the upside down Scion sticking out of the mud. He pulled over and entered the ditch. The muck was thick and waist-high.
"Once he was able to make contact with her we could tell from her voice that she was in shock and we needed to get to her as quick as possible," Alvarez said.
He made sure the driver stayed calm and in a pocket of air until the sheriff's dive team could arrive. That was Deputies Chris Sullivan and Jeremy Pollack, who arrived and didn't even change into their wetsuits. They were in their white-and-green uniforms when they plunged into the muck with their oxygen tanks and a spare for the driver.
The divers could only pry the driver's door open a few inches, but did manage to open the passenger-side door and help Antonio escape the vehicle.
Deputies believe she was trapped for up to 20 minutes. She was wearing her seat belt during the crash and suffered only minor injuries.
The Sheriff's Office credited Antonio with aiding her own rescue. By staying calm and calling 911, she helped save her own life.
"If you're in an accident or a drowning scenario, the No. 1 think you can do is keep calm and assess your situation," Alvarez said. "She called 911, and because she wasn't in a high state of panic, we were able to find her because as she calmed down she gave us more information."
But the driver could not have escaped on her own, Alvarez said, because the car was "encased" in mud.
In his experience as a sheriff's diver, Sullivan said Antonio was very fortunate considering the circumstances: "As a diver, as a dive team, there's not many chances that someone actually walks away from that scene."
Her stepfather, Julio Perez, called the rescue a miracle. The family is grateful to the deputies who helped Antonio.
"I am so grateful they were there," said Guzman, the mother. "All of them were there to help her. Even with the holiday, they all did their part."
Contact Megan Reeves at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @mareevs.