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Hillsborough deputies describe rescuing woman from sinking SUV

The scariest moment was when the screaming stopped.

Two Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies rescued a woman from a sinking vehicle Saturday evening, swimming to it, breaking the window and pulling her out just as the red sport utility vehicle plunged to the bottom of the pond.

The driver, 82-year-old Leona Evans of Webster, was taken to Lakeland Regional Hospital and remained in serious condition Sunday.

Still, said the deputies, it could have been much worse.

"If we hadn't gotten there when we did, I think 30 seconds would have been too much longer," said Deputy Benjamin Thompson, 35. "It was just excellent timing."

According to the Florida Highway Patrol, Evans was driving a 2015 Hyundai Santa Fe westbound on Paul Buchman Highway near Plant City when she traveled across all lanes of intersecting Alexander Street and hit a utility pole.

The SUV went airborne, crossed an embankment, crashed through a chain-link fence and entered a pond.

The crash wasn't alcohol-related, but what caused Evans to veer is still under investigation.

Deputies Thompson and Trent Migues, 29, arrived on the scene at approximately 5 p.m. — about 10 minutes after they received the emergency call.

Bystanders had already tied a rope to the vehicle to pull it out. Another was attempting to open the door but none "had the tools to do anything," Thompson said.

Thompson stripped off his utility belt, shirt and boots and swam to the SUV, which was deep enough in the pond that he had to tread water.

The driver, Thompson said, was in hysterics, and understandably so, gripping the steering wheel and yelling as water rose to her ankles.

"I tried to talk to her but I couldn't get her attention," he said. "I knew at any moment when there is more water than air it could sink like a rock."

The passenger door wouldn't open so Thompson pounded at its window with his baton, the first time in his 11 years of service he needed to break into a car in such a manner.

"I hit it and I hit it for all of my life, and after about the sixth time it finally shattered," he said, adding that the water then flowed in like a waterfall.

Leaning half his body into the car, over broken glass, Thompson wrapped his arms around Evans' waist and pulled, but she was stuck.

"She was screaming pretty loud," Migues said.

Then the SUV, the driver and Thompson disappeared underwater and everything fell silent. That, Migues said, was "the scariest moment."

Migues and an unidentified bystander grabbed Thompson's ankles. And when the car sank to the bottom of the pond, the driver "popped out (of her seat) like a cork," Thompson said.

Thompson safely pulled Evans through the window, though he sustained cuts on his face and hands.

"All things considered, it was kind of minor," he said.

On shore, despite injuries sustained from the crash, Migues said Evans remained in good spirits and chuckled when he told her "she was one tough old lady."

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow