College sailors rescue family from sunken van

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A group of sailors taking part in a regatta of team-racing in waters near Galveston, Texas, were drawn into a dramatic underwater rescue operation after they witnessed a van full of people drive off the road and into the water. Five passengers who were trapped inside the van were eventually pulled from the sunken vehicle and revived in a complex operation involving repeated, groping dives in the cold, murky water. The incident took place just after noon on Feb. 24 at Offatt Bayou, a saltwater inlet of the Gulf of Mexico. The driver’s wife, infant daughter and three other relatives, including two young children, were all revived, despite being unconscious for several minutes. (The driver reported to police that he had not attempted to stop the vehicle from the near-deadly plunge.)

"It's miraculous that everyone happened to be there. I have no doubt in my mind that these people would have died if we had not been racing right in this area," Gerard Coleman, sailing coach for Texas A&M University, Galveston and organizer of the regatta, said in an interview. "We actually don't usually sail in this area, so if we hadn't been there, it could have been a very long time before the van was discovered. We were also very fortunate that several people in the group had CPR and first-aid training, and one member of the group was a former EMT."

The van was driven at high speed down a road that ended in the bayou. It flew off the edge of a concrete embankment, which was several feet above the surface of the water, before splashing into the bayou approximately 60 feet from shore. The van landed less than 30 feet from one of the 420s, the crew of which reported being splashed with water.

Almost immediately, the entire regatta's participants, which included students and associates of Texas A&M, Galveston and College Station, and others from the University of Texas, were alerted of the emergency, and several students and coaches swam to the spot where the van had disappeared, according to Coleman. "I was onshore at the time and didn't see the van go in, but I swam out to where some of the people said it had gone down. When we swam to the spot, we found we could stand on the roof of the van," Coleman said. Repeated attempts to clear the windows and doors failed, so the group at the scene began calling for rocks from shore to be delivered to the site so that the windows could be smashed. "We swam rocks out from shore and, not in any organized fashion, we started smashing out the windows and groping around inside," he said.

"The water was so cold and dark that the first time I went under to have a look, I had to pop right back up; it took my breath away," Chris Noll, a sailor and student at Texas A&M, Galveston, said. Noll said he was able to make repeated dives, first to smash out several windows, and then to pull victims from the van. "It was pretty strange to find these people — I couldn't see a foot in front of my face — and feel a hand and not have it respond, not grab hold of me even after I started pulling." Noll first pulled one of the mothers to the surface, one of the older children (he wasn't sure which, he said), and assisted in bringing the infant, still strapped into its safety seat, to the surface. He suffered numerous cuts on his hands and legs, he said.

The victims were brought to the surface one by one and, once ashore, were carried up a rocky embankment to a level area for CPR treatment. Between the time that the first person was brought up and the last, a span of about 10 minutes, an ambulance had arrived. Four of the victims, a 26-year-old woman, her two children, ages four and six, and a 21-year-old woman, who was the wife of the driver, were resuscitated on-scene. The daughter of the 21-year-old, a seven-month-old infant, appeared to be dead. Once at the hospital, the victims were triaged, the infant put aside after being declared dead by a doctor. The infant reportedly recovered a pulse and her breathing a short time later, according to reports.

By Ocean Navigator