How to get out of a submerged vehicle

Southwest Florida has lakes and canals that unwary stray into -- learn how to escape

It’s frightful even for many trained divers and rescuers. Your vehicle has left the road and plunged into a waterway. You’re sinking quickly and wondering if and how you’ll get out alive.

What you do during the next minute will likely determine whether you survive.

“Get out and get out quickly,” said Capt. Dave Baer of the Marco Island Police Department. That escape is often through a window, which may need to first be broken, he said.

Special tools are needed and can be purchased online, in hardware stores and in auto parts stores, commonly for about $15. They should be mounted in sight and in reach, not hidden in locked compartments, experts advise.

Vehicle submersions have been reported at least a dozen times in Collier County so far this year. Three of them occurred in or very near Fiddler’s Creek in Naples just north of Marco Island. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that Florida had the highest number of fatal accidents involving immersion in the country in 2009. Roads lined with canals and developments with ponds and lakes are particularly prevalent in Collier County.

“I’m a trained diver and it’s still really unnerving,” said Baer of the specter of being trapped in a vehicle under water.

The number one rule: Don’t panic.

That’s what helped survivor Gerry Paolini, of Isles of Capri, when he crashed his brother’s truck into a lake at Fiddler’s Creek.

“I’m just glad I didn’t freak out,” said the 25-year-old as he stood on the side of Collier Boulevard that rainy evening in August.

He had his driver’s side window down at the time he lost control of his truck. So, for Paolini, the common struggle of finding an exit was alleviated. However, in some cases, electronic windows will automatically go up when the electronic system fails.

Preparation for such a life or death situation is paramount and that includes having the right tool for the job, Baer said. There are several tools sold in hardware stores, auto parts stores and numerous websites. They range from $10 to $30 with most being about $15. The hammer should be aimed toward the corner of the window.

Baer personally has two tools. He keeps a ResQMe Mini Life Hammer on his key chain and the full-size Life Hammer in his car. Both tools will cut through a jammed seat belt and shatter a side or rear window.

Also, being familiar with the interior of your vehicle in the dark is helpful as visibility decreases in water and disorientation can easily occur if the vehicle flips, area fire rescue officials recommend.

Online survival tips can be contradictory and confusing. That is because no two situations are exactly alike, Baer explained.

The worst available advice is to wait before attempting to escape. Several sources suggested that when sinking quickly it’s best to wait until the water fills the vehicle completely. That’s not sound advice, according to Baer and Gordon Giesbrecht, a Canadian scientist who has conducted numerous experiments on such scenarios.

Open the window. The first action to take in a vehicle submersion is to open the window. Then, release the seat belt. Assist any children, letting them out. Then, get out as soon as possible and swim to safety.

Tips to make these steps most successful include opening a window that is against the direction of the water flow and keeping a hand on the door or other reference point to avoid disorientation. If disoriented, look for light or release air to observe bubbles floating upward.

Some people experience a gut reaction to close their window upon impact with the water, as if that will keep water out of the car. This won’t help.

Windows need to be open for escape and the electric control likely won’t work.

The ability to escape by breaking a window with a key, high heel, stee toe and other common objects are myths, according to Discovery Channel reports through its TV show “MythBusters.”

“If you’re trying to use brute force, you’re doing it wrong,” said Baer. “You’d be surprised how resilient car windows are... I’ve seen police hit them with batons, night sticks and they don’t break.”

Next, get your seat belts off. People may not be comfortable teaching their children how to get out of their safety seats, Baer said, yet he recommends they do just that to prevent a delay.

Don’t bother calling 911. You need that time to get out. A common response in an emergency is to call 911. However, this may actually decrease the odds of survival, according to a study by Giesbrecht and Gerren K. McDonald on automobile submersions. The study was published in the August 2010 journal Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine.

“In the case of vehicle submersion, valuable time is wasted as it likely takes more than 60 (seconds) to make a cell phone call and provide details and directions,” Giesbrecht reported.

That one minute exceeds the time that most vehicles remain floating, he said.

“Also, 911 response protocols should be developed specifically for vehicle submersion cases in which the operator should focus attention on instructing the victim that they must open or break the windows and exit the vehicle as quickly as possible,” Giesbrecht said.

Paolini, whose truck went down into a Fiddler’s Creek lake, made sound decisions when he left his wallet and cell phone behind without thinking about it.

Many of the circumstances surrounding the Nov. 2 death of Mary J. Catania, 58, who crashed her vehicle in a another Fiddlers Creek pond, remain unclear. The Florida Highway Patrol and the Collier County Sheriff’s Office have declined to release the 911 tapes at this time citing an ongoing investigation.

Radio reports on that evening indicated that dispatchers lost contact with Catania shortly after her stating that the water was rising above her waist. That water then rose to the roof as rescuers attempted to locate her.

Do not bother trying to open the door. As long as the water level has risen even to the bottom of the door, the pressure will be too great to open it. Also, attempting to smash a windshield will be fruitless, experts warn.

Even being prepared won’t remove the horror, Giesbrecht told Canada’s Globe and Mail in August. Giesbrecht published the results of more than 100 vehicle submersions, including 30 in which he was the one who was submerged to test escape methods.

“I got such a scare that first time,” Giesbrecht said.

He had a scuba tank right next to him, but it was small comfort.

“I’d been preparing for this moment for months and it was all I could do to get out. For the average person, this would be tough,” he declared.

© 2010 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Related Stories

Related Links

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.

Features