COLLIER COUNTY — With a push from behind, a 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass rolled down a boat dock, made a splash and tipped forward into the water.
Cpls. Geoff Fahringer and Carlo Llorca rolled down the windows and pushed their way out.
“Even though we’re both extremely accomplished divers, it’s extremely intimidating having that water come up on you,” said Fahringer, wearing a wet suit topped with a blue striped button-down.
The men, along with other members of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office’s dive team, spent Friday afternoon practicing ways to survive a vehicle submersion along with a handful of local public safety agencies. Officials said the event was spurred by the deaths of an Immokalee mother and her two daughters after a January crash on Alligator Alley landed their car in a canal.
“We react because we care. We react because we don’t want these tragic headlines to be forgotten,” said Dr. Todd Vedder of the Safe and Healthy Children’s Coalition of Collier County.
Gordon Giesbrecht, an expert on cold-water safety and vehicle-submersion survival from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, led the demonstrations at the Golden Gate Community Park’s boat ramp. About 50 people from the community and public safety agencies attended.
His No. 1 tip? When your car goes underwater, don’t touch your cellphone. The first minute is crucial, and it’s a waste of your time trying to call 911, he said.
More important is rolling down your electric windows before the water reaches them.
“Seat belts, windows, children, out,” he told the audience.
Giesbrecht recalled a case where a witness said he watched a woman’s car go in the water, then saw her rolling her windows up — something totally against what Giesbrecht advises.
“You think the water’s coming up, water’s bad, it’s going to kill me, and you roll them up,” he said. Instead, it’s the quickest way to die.
Children should be helped out of the car from oldest to youngest, Giesbrecht said. After rolling down the windows, older children should be told to swim out and hold onto the car so parents can help younger ones out of car seats.
“If you did the car seat first and you got stuck, then everybody dies,” Giesbrecht said.
In cases where it’s too late to get the windows rolled down, Giesbrecht said your best hope for survival is to have a window punching device. Kicking the windows out is nearly impossible, he said.
The dive team acted out about a half-dozen vehicle submersion scenarios, including a few with dummies of children and babies. Garden Street Iron & Metal donated the car, while Bald Eagle Towing was responsible for getting it in and out of the water over the three-hour demonstration.
As the towing company hauled the Oldsmobile back up the dock, Giesbrecht waded in the water and turned to a woman watching on a floating dock.
“It’s an eerie sight, no matter how many times you see it,” he observed. “It’s just not natural.”