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Underwater Escape: Getting Out Of A Car Alive

chris-may-web Chris May
Chris May is anchor of CBS 3’s Eyewitness News at 5, 6 an...
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By Chris May

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – On the Schuylkill River this week, heroism and heartbreak.  A rowing crew rescued one man but couldn’t save a second, who drowned when his car plunged into the murky water.

Chicago. Sacramento. Philadelphia. Datelines of drownings in vehicles, an estimated 400 in North America every year.

“Oh my God, my car is sinking,” said Karla Guiterrez, her car sinking into a South Florida canal. She called 911: “My car is sinking!”

911 dispatcher: “You can’t open a window or get out?”

“No, I can’t! I can’t!”

Three minutes, 22 seconds later, the line went dead.  Karla drowned.

The people in this story want to make sure that never happens again.  Dive team members are sending a car into the water, over and over again, to demonstrate how to get out of a sinking car alive.

WATCH: One Adult Escape

“This is a situation where rescue is very unlikely to come and help you.

You need to take action yourself,” said safety researcher Gordon Giesbrecht, Ph.D.  He spoke to us via Skype from his University of Manitoba office in Canada.

After conducting more than 150 car sinking tests, Giesbrecht estimates you have only 60 seconds to act once your car hits water. You have even less time if your floorboard leaks, like the one in the demonstration car does.

First, unbuckle your seatbelt.

WATCH: Two Adults Escape

“You can do it very easily at the beginning,” Giesbrecht said. “You’re less panicked. There’s no water in the vehicle yet. Get it off.”

Then open your window.  Why the window and not the doors? Allentown fire department’s dive team knows all too well, “The doors are going to be very tough to open because of the pressure on them,” explained assistant fire chief of training and safety Christopher Kiskeravage.

If you can’t get your window down, or your power window stops working,  you’ll have to break the window. Have a specially designed hammer or punch always visible and accessible by the driver’s seat. Then break the glass.

After seatbelts and windows, reach for your children and unbuckle them.  Giesbrecht advocates oldest first: “If you start with the oldest, even if they’re four or five years old, you can give them instructions: Go over here, get out the window and just hold onto the window.”

Finally, get everyone out the window.

WATCH: Four Adults Escape

“What do you do when you’re on fire? Stop, Drop and Roll,” Giesbrecht said. “Our ultimate goal is to try to get Seatbelts, Windows, Children, Out, into the same level of public perception.”

Dive teams like the one in Allentown train for both surface rescues and underwater recoveries. They know panic is the enemy.

“If you stay calm, your chances of survival are a lot greater,” said Battalion Chief James Wehr.

Giesbrecht says our instinct to call 911 can kill us: “If you touch your cell phone, you’re probably going to die.” It’s up to you to get out.

Again, this is the order once your car hits the water: Seatbelts. Windows. Children. Out.

WATCH: Two Adults, Children Escape

There are dozens of devices on the market. Giesbrecht says, almost all rescue hammers he has tested work. Giesbrecht says it’s extremely important to have any rescue tool secure, visible and accessible in your car at all times so when you’re under pressure, you don’t waste time looking for it.

The Resqme is a tool that can hang on your keychain or rear window, and includes a seatbelt cutter and a spring-loaded window punch.  The same makers also make the LifeHammer.

And retailers like Amazon carry a variety of window rescue tools as well as your local hardware store.