October 12, 2007

Nose first among staring fish


A number of Florida coastal cities, east and west, are laced with canals. Here’s a story I wrote for a metropolitan daily a few years ago about the danger of driving into one, and what is likely to happen if you do. The story focuses on the city of Cape Coral, just to the north of Naples, where canals are ubiquitous to the city’s structure and way of life.



Of all his daring stunts, none mesmerized crowds more than magician Harry Houdini's legendary escapes from confinement in objects and vessels submerged underwater. And for good reason. The stunts evoked enough primal fears to grimly fascinate millions.

"I won't drive over a bridge with my windows up," said Naples resident Jane Pringle, referring to the dread that haunts her: accidentally driving her car into a body of water. Her fears are not altogether unfounded. Whether from a bridge, a pier, or washed out road, whether into a canal, a rain-filled drainage ditch, or backyard pool, the chances of escaping from a submerged vehicle are not good. In most submerged car fatalities, panic - paralyzing, chaos-inducing panic - is a leading cause of drowning. There are tools and techniques that can improve one's chances of surviving this nightmare scenario, even though survival percentages are disappointing. "It all comes down to keeping a cool head," said Cape Coral fire department operations chief Tom Tomich.

How do you keep a cool head when you wind up in the back seat of a car submerged in murky water and the back window is now where the steering wheel should be? Or entangled in a seatbelt as the windshield begins to implode and shatter in a surging bank of water? Not many can, but trying is still critical to survival.

"There are so many variables," said Tomich. "The deeper you go in some of these canals, the less chance of the car landing upright. Heavy silt, even on sunny days, makes visibility very poor." Cape Coral, with its network of canals, boat ramps, piers, and lakes, would seem to lure drivers into the deep more than it does. There have been twenty six water rescues so far this year, about twenty-five percent of which were responses to submerged vehicles, or about six since January, according to Tomich's estimate. Streets or roads dead-ending into canals and basins are a hazard. Heavy rains can swell drainage ditches into small ponds, and few vehicles are more than six feet tall. And in an accident in which minutes count, "Whether the incident is witnessed or unwitnessed makes all the difference."

Help can arrive quickly. The Cape's Engine Company 6 trains First Responder teams that can begin freeing people from sunken cars immediately. They are followed by a full scuba team. Every member of the Cape Coral Fire Department undergoes a First Responder Water Rescue Refresher Class twice yearly, according to Lt. Randy Seeley, an instructor based at engine company 6 in mid Cape. At a recent exercise in the Cape Coral Yacht Club Pool, firefighters rescued volunteer "victims" from a submerged plastic model car, resting on the bottom of the pool's deep end. Wearing special goggles, sandblasted to give the illusion of cloudy water, firefighters wearing full "bunker gear" dove to the vehicle with only their training in maintaining orientation, and recognizing general shapes, to guide them to the drowning victim.



"We do surface rescue, sub-surface, bottom dives," said Seeley. "We have men dive in with bunker gear, fall off the diving board, simulating working a boat fire and falling off of a dock. It's a confidence-builder. You would think that wearing all that gear would cause the firefighter to sink right to the bottom. The opposite is really true. There's a lot of air trapped in the jackets and pants. They float very well."

But of all the water-based rescues to which the firefighters are summoned, the submerged vehicle is one of the most challenging. Time is simply not on their side. "Panic is the biggest danger," said Seeley. "You need to stop, think, and react, just like divers learn in scuba classes. But average people go into panic mode pretty quickly, even forgetting to release seat belts. That's what's holding them in, and they don't even realize it."

Entanglement can be a killer. "Our guys train to get into a car, get them untangled as soon as possible," said Tomich. But entanglement can spread. "You can wind up having a rescuer compromised," Tomich continued. "Last year we had one up on Tropicana. Two guys were trapped in the mud upside down. The victims had died and the rescuer got entangled in the steering column and had to be rescued himself."

The window for escape from a "drowning" vehicle can be small, but it does exist. That window is often, literally, the window. If the car is still floating, your best chance of escape, initially, is to roll down the window quickly, and climb out of the car before the weight of the engine causes the car to pitch forward and begin to fill with water. But when cars begin to go under, drivers sometimes cling to the misguided notion that the vehicle is sufficiently water tight to create an air pocket that will sustain them until rescuers arrive. That can be a fatal assumption. "Don't count on this," says the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. "Even if an air pocket is formed and you can find it, there probably won't be a sufficient amount of oxygen for any substantial time, or the carbon dioxide accumulation will eventually be fatal anyway." The car's velocity and angle of entry, and the size and depth of the water, can dramatically alter the orientation of the vehicle underwater, adding to the danger. Windshields frequently implode when the car goes down, although often not sufficiently to facilitate escape. Windshields are made of safety glass, so instead of falling in pieces to the dashboard, the fragments hang together in a single, shard-studded sheet.

"The power windows may still work underwater," said Seeley. "I've been on dives and seen cars with headlights on after three hours under water. But all electrical systems may not be functioning. If the windows do not go down, then you need to open the door." If window escape is not an option before the car tanks, the alternative, although life-saving, is as scary as it is counter-intuitive: take a last gulp of air and wait for the car to fill completely. "Only when water pressure is equalized inside the car and out, will you be able to open the car door, and swim away. It opens like a bank vault. Slowly. Sometimes people think that the door is blocked when they can't open it. You have to maintain pressure on it."

"You don't have to be a Hercules to be up to the challenge," said Tomich. "Self rescue is sometimes the only option."

To accelerate escape, a side window can be blown with a glass center punch, a small pen-like device available at hardware stores. Drivers must be mentally, and physically, prepared for the rush of water filling the car, and to swim out the open window, or open the door. "If you were to keep a window punch in a side door compartment, you could blow the window out," said Seeley. "If it's been tinted, it acts like safety glass. All the little pieces will hang together in one sheet; just push that out, and you can swim right out. Most of the canals around here are only about ten to twenty feet deep. You're not in that deep of water. But the waiting can be an eternity. But if you wait for everything to equalize out, you'll be able to get out."

To summon one's inner Houdini may be the most elusive challenge of all. Yet with a just a few techniques, a simple tool in a pocket, a presence of mind that can be cultivated, and a little bit of luck, perhaps more escape artists can live to tell the tale.




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