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Fire official offers survival tips when a vehicle ends up in a waterway

By Staff | May 13, 2011

Since the start of the year, 17 vehicles have ended up in Cape Coral’s waterways, with the most recent incident occurring last week.
On May 5, a Lexus SUV traveled down a boat ramp and into a canal next to Rumrunners at Cape Harbour. The driver, Melvin Rich, 46, of 4226 Country Club Blvd., stated that he did not know he was driving toward a boat ramp.
Neither Rich nor his passenger were injured, and the SUV had to be towed.
Cape Coral Fire Department Division Chief Tom Tomich said submerged vehicle incidents typically involve a vehicle running across a vacant lot and ending up in a canal or driving off a bridge. Losing control and hydroplaning across a lot is the most common occurrence.
“Until the Cape is completely built out, we’ll always be faced with this,” he said. “There is the opportunity for people to drive across vacant lots.”
The city has about 460 miles of canals and 31 miles of shoreline.
So far none of the 2010 incidents have resulted in a fatality, but Tomich expects the total number of accidents to increase before the year’s end.
“That will probably double by the end of the year,” he said.
Cape fire responds to about 50 calls each year for a vehicle in a canal.
In some instances, the submerged vehicle turns out to be stolen. In these cases, the vehicle was likely ditched and had been in the water for a while.
According to Tomich, many of the Cape survivors are self-rescues.
“They get out of the car, mostly before they sink,” he said.
In 2009, there were 16 fatalities and 413 injuries statewide due to a vehicle running off a road and into water. There were 38 fatalities and 544 injuries in Florida the prior year, compared to 59 fatalities and 792 injuries in 2007.

Taking on water
Knowing what to do and not panicking can play a big part in surviving.
“A lot of it has to do with staying calm and composed as much as possible,” he said. “Panic will wind up working against you.”
The heaviest end of a vehicle will sink first — the engine. Depending on how well-sealed a vehicle is, it can float from 30 seconds to about four minutes.
“Time goes by very fast when this is occurring,” Tomich said.
Drivers should unbuckle their seat belt and tell occupants to do the same.
Unlock the doors and roll the windows down to equalize the pressure and create an escape route. Tomich said it has been observed that most electrical systems can function for some time while the vehicle is sinking.
“We always tell people to try to get the window down while the car is going under,” he said.
If the windows will not open, allow the vehicle to fill up enough to equalize the pressure and press against a door and open it. Try another one if necessary.
Tomich noted that there are tools available that can be kept in a vehicle.
Used like a hammer, a center punch can break windows under water. There are also seat belt cutters that consist of a razor blade in a plastic sheath. Some combine a center punch and a seat belt cutter in one accessible tool.
“Clearly having these tools are really an important part of survivability,” he said.

Witness to sinking
When a vehicle’s occupants are rendered unconscious during the incident, Tomich acknowledged that rescue really relies on someone seeing it happen. He said witnesses should first call 911 for help before doing anything else.
“Get help coming,” he said.
Those physically incapable of providing help should not enter the water — wait for emergency crew to arrive. Those who can help and decide to enter the water should first remove all loose clothing, including belts and shoes.
“You don’t want to become entangled on something like a mirror or debris and drown,” Tomich said.
Staying on the surface, swim out to the vehicle and stop. Take a deep breath and go under from that location. He warned that if there is air left in the car and the rescuer breaks a window, that person can be sucked into the vehicle.
Do not enter the vehicle.
Do an arm sweep from the outside to locate any victims.
“Use the other arm to anchor yourself so you don’t enter and become entangled,” Tomich said. “Try and keep your head out of the vehicle as much as you can.”
If victims are located, remove them from the vehicle headfirst.
In those witnessed instances where a vehicle drives into a canal but the occupant escapes, bystanders should ask if anyone else was in the vehicle. Tomich said this information can be relayed to rescue units to provide an appropriate response.

Ounce of prevention
Some incidents happen where a tire blows out or a driver does not notice the canal ahead and there is nothing to be done, Tomich said. In other instances, there are steps that can be taken to prevent a possible accident or tragedy.
“They need to take it easy,” he said.
Do not speed and pay attention to the road, especially any sharp curves.
Those unfamiliar with the Cape should drive safety when looking for streets.
Tomich said motorists also should be careful of running through water when the roadway is not visible during rainy season and be wary of street flooding.
“Cape Coral is a very uniquely laid out community, and the canals may sometimes appear in places where you least expect them,” he said.