TAMPA — Amanda Nicole Antonio may be alive today because she stayed relatively calm while trapped upside down in a car as it slowly sank into a ditch of cold, muddy water in the dark hours before dawn on New Year’s Day.
She gives credit, in part, to the hours she has spent watching television shows about 911 rescues.
But more important to her survival was the reassuring tone of real-life 911 operator Cheyanne Allen.
"She was the first angel that I met that night," Antonio, 20, said during a Thursday news conference where she was reunited with her rescuers. “And she brought everybody else to me."
Hillsborough County Sheriff’s deputies Jeremy Pollack, Chris Sullivan and Ryan Cooper jumped into the ditch to pull Antonio from the car.
But Pollack, too, sang the praises of the sheriff’s dispatch unit as unsung heroes in so many of the crises deputies confront.
"It is one of the most important jobs,” Pollack said at the news conference. “Without the dispatcher, we would not have been able to find her.”
Antonio said she was driving home to Seffner on Interstate 4 from a New Year's Eve party at the home of her boyfriend’s uncle when a car cut her off at 3:52 a.m. Antonio lost control of the 2008 Scion she was driving, owned by her boyfriend’s brother, and rolled into the watery ditch.
A few months ago, Antonio recalled, she boasted to her stepfather Julio Perez that she knew how to get out of a car that was sinking in the water because of all the shows she had watched about emergency responders.
"You go through the backseat and out the trunk," Antonio said.
That wasn’t an option for Antonio, though, because her car was upside down.
Frantic over the rising water, she considered dialing her mother or boyfriend but regained her composure and remembered 911 was the number to dial.
But her iPhone 7 was somewhere under the water and the cabin of the car was dark except for the radio and console buttons, any outside light blocked by the rising mud.
So she thought to ping the phone with the Apple watch on her wrist. It worked. She grabbed the phone, dried it off and made the call.
Dispatcher Allen, 23, and on the job for only 10 months, answered.
"I knew I had to remain calm to keep her calm," Allen said. "I had to keep it together. I had to stick to my training."
Antonio told her what she knew about her location, but Allen honed in with her questions — Antonio was heading back from Orlando and was somewhere between exits 7 and 10.
"Until I heard her voice, I was panicked," Antonio said. "I felt like I was not going to make it."
At one point during their dramatic, 20-minute back and forth, Antonio began to weep and asked if she was going to be OK. Allen reminded Antonio she was with her and that help was on the way. That helped clear her mind, Antonio said — enough to stop crying and remember that she could use Google Maps to pinpoint her location.
Bingo: She was near the I-4 exit to the Midflorida Credit Union Amphitheatre.
Deputy Cooper was first on the scene. He waded through waist-high muck and made sure Antonio could keep her head in an air pocket until sheriff's dive team members Sullivan and Pollack arrived. Equipped with oxygen tanks, but skipping the wetsuits, they pulled Antonio through the passenger's side door.
"It was like quicksand," Sullivan said. "Amanda absolutely would not have gotten out of that vehicle on her own."
And the deputies might not have found her in time if not for the dispatcher, said sheriff’s Chief Deputy Donna Lusczynski. "Cheyanne did a great job working with Amanda ... to find out where she was."
A victim's anxiety level during a crisis can mean the difference between life and death, said Brad Herron, general manager of the communications bureau with the Sheriff’s Office.
"We reiterate during training the importance of de-escalation," Herron said. "Because once they lose it, we can't get the information out of them that the deputies need to help them."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or follow @PGuzzoTimes.