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Odds slim for surviving underwater accident in winter


August 25. 2013 1:58AM
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OTTOVILLE — When the desperate call for help came in from 17-year-old Brianna Coon saying she went off the road into a pond, deputies and state troopers began a search against the clock.The call was so short they didn't even have a good location and had to get a hold of the phone company to find out the cellular phone tower Coon's call was transmitted through. It was north of Ottoville but without a better location than a five-mile radius it was nearly an impossible task to find her alive if she were unable to escape the car.“The only thing she could say is, ‘I'm in the water,'” Putnam County Sheriff Jim Beutler said. “The call pinged the tower but not her location.”Two hours passed and a state trooper came across tire tracks going off a road toward a pond and a hubcap along the path. Through the phone call that only lasted seconds, authorities were able to track the cell number to Coon. They also knew the car she was driving and the hubcap matched the Dodge Neon she drove, Beutler said. Sheriff divers, including Beutler, were called in to search the pond. The frigid water was just above freezing so divers in dry suits would only last minutes in the water before they had to get out and recover. In this case, the car was found within minutes and a tow-truck pulled it out with Coon inside.Her body was pulled from the car four hours after the phone call. She was pronounced dead at the scene.Such calls and circumstances are hard for rescue workers, Beutler said.The hardest part often is finding the person and that's if the person had the chance to call 911. Oftentimes, when a phone is stuck in a purse or someone's pocket and they crash into water, they are in a panic and unable to call. The fact Coon was able to call 911 helped authorities find her even if it were too late. Otherwise, no one would have known she crashed into the pond or where she was because her car was submerged and not visible, Beutler said.Regardless if a person makes a phone call to 911, the odds of surviving an underwater accident in a car, particularly in the winter, are not good, Beutler said.A person has seconds to a few minutes to decide how to get out of the car to make an escape. Hypothermia sets in within minutes and a person may lose the ability to control his or her body in the cold water within seconds to a minute, Beutler said.Beutler, who teaches emergency responders how to deal with cold-water rescue, fills a cooler with ice and water during his class. He has a man submerge his arm and times how long the man can hold his arm in the ice water. Usually, it's about 60 seconds before the pain of the cold water overwhelms him, Beutler said.The sheriff also has the man try to pick up coins in the cold water, a task that is nearly impossible when the blood leaves the arm and muscle function quickly fades, he said.Beulter uses that example to show how quick cold water can affect someone. The cold water lowers the chances to survive.The key to having a chance at surviving a cold-water accident is having a plan and practicing the plan ahead of time, not when it happens, Beutler said.“You need to be able to determine how to get out of your car,” he said. “You have to know your vehicle and know how to get out.”That includes knowing how you will open the windows or break them out. While hand-crank windows still function underwater, electric windows fail the second the motor gets wet, which means those windows will have to be broken. Most people don't plan for that by carrying something that will break a window, he said.“Cars aren't sealed airtight. The water is going to come in,” Beutler said.How fast a car fills depends on the type of car. It will be seconds to minutes, at the most, he said.Beutler recommends trying to get a window down as soon as the car enters the water. Seconds count. If the electric motor hasn't been hit with the water yet, it still may work.The best windows to break out are the side, door windows. The windshield is nearly impossible to break or kick through, he said.In Coon's case, one of the rear windows was down about six inches. The problem with rear windows is car companies make them childproof so those windows only lower a matter of inches, Beutler said. Front, driver or passenger side windows are the best option if someone can locate those in the dark, underwater, Beutler said.The other option, if the car fills with water is to try to open the door. If the car is not filled with water, the pressure prevents a door from being opened, Beutler said.The escape has to take less than a minute, usually, for someone to survive. If the car is submerged, the person has to get out and deal with the cold water that is literally paralyzing their body, Beutler said.“In that cold water you have a very limited amount of time for self-rescue. Your muscles are going to become very rigid. You will become very confused,” he said. “Your body just starts shutting down. Seconds count.”On top of that, panic will set in, he said. As easy as it sounds, panicking is another obstacle to fight to survive, Beutler said.“The biggest thing is to be able to keep your cool, keep your wits,” Beutler said.Luckily, these incidents are rare and usually caused by three factors: weather, darkness and unfamiliarity with road. In Coon's case, it was dark and she likely was not familiar with the area. It appears she didn't see the curve in the road and continued to go straight once she left the road at the curve, Beutler said. “These things don't happen a lot. Very rarely,” he said.Coon's accident is the fourth such this winter. On Jan. 1, rescue workers responded to a sport utility vehicle in a pond north of Continental. Sandra Hauenstein, 54, of Ravenna, was able to escape without injury other than being wet and cold. She slid off the icy road and only the rear end of the vehicle was not submerged, Beutler said. In November, 63-year-old Earl Kuhlman, of Fort Jennings, was lucky to survive a similar accident. He crashed into a pond and truck driver John Neumeier was close enough to hear the crash. Neumeier grabbed a wrench he used to bust the window out of Kuhlman's car as the car was sinking. Neumeier was able to pull Kuhlman from the car as it sunk in eight feet of water.Beutler credited Neumeier with saving Kuhlman's life.In Mercer County last month, Danny L. Boise, 61, died after he crashed his car into a pond during the early morning when it still was dark. He managed to escape the car and water but made it only a short distance before he collapsed and died. Snow-covered roads and darkness were factors in the crash, the Mercer County Sheriff's Office reported.






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