On a frigid winter day, a group of strangers band together to save three children.
By Melody Warnick from Reader’s Digest Magazine
The 30 miles of switchbacks that snake through the pine-feathered mountains of Logan Canyon in Utah are enough to make most drivers’ palms sweat.
But Roger Andersen, a 46-year-old father of four, wasn’t expecting any trouble on the road last New Year’s Eve, when he set off for an impromptu ski trip to the Bear River Mountains with nine-year-old daughter Mia, four-year-old son Baylor, and nine-year-old neighbor Kenya Wildman. Andersen had driven through the canyon hundreds of times over the years.
“We ski in that area at least 20 times a year,” says Andersen. “I know the spots that ice up a lot in the winter.”
The weather was glorious for hitting the slopes—30 degrees and sunny—but the higher they drove, the slicker the roads became. Rounding a notorious hairpin turn at mile marker 473, Andersen saw a van that had skated off the road and instinctively tapped his brakes. In an instant, the Honda Accord was sliding at 25 miles per hour toward the shoulder of the highway, then lurching down a steep ten-foot embankment toward the frigid Logan River. As it hit the water, the car tipped toward the passenger side, hesitated, and then rolled onto its roof and sank into the river.
There was no time to tell the kids what to do. The crash had shattered a few windows, and within seconds, the cab of the upside-down car was filled with water. “It was frightening how fast we were completely underwater,”remembers Andersen, a soft-spoken product development manager. “You’re thinking, Is this how it’s all going to end?”
Disoriented, Andersen began to search the freezing water for the kids. Mia had been right next to him in the front seat; now, in the blackness, he couldn’t find her. “I thought, If I don’t get out, maybe none of us are going to get out.” Andersen wriggled out of his seat belt, swam through a broken window, and gulped air at the surface. That’s when he saw a group of men, about ten in all, appear at the top of the embankment. One after another, they raced down and waded into the water, shouting, “Who else is in the car?” Andersen says reverently, “It was like the sight of angels.”
Video: Watch the rescuers describe their life-or-death situation that day:
Leading the charge was Chris Willden, a 35-year-old former police officer and military sniper who’d felt a jolt of panic after seeing the car veer off the road. Two years earlier, Willden had skidded into the Logan River in almost the same spot.
Andersen was screaming, “My kids are in the car!” The river was only about four feet deep near the bank, but the Accord’s doors were jammed shut, and the windows were submerged and impossible to kick in. Willden, who as a bodyguard had trained to fire a gun underwater, told Andersen he was going to shoot out the rear passenger window, where Kenya had been sitting. When Andersen didn’t object, Willden plunged the handgun he always carries into the river, carefully angled the muzzle toward the roof, and fired. The glass shattered. Willden reached in and felt for arms, legs, clothing, hair. Nothing.
Andersen shouted, “We’ve got to flip this car!” Even with this size group, the idea of overturning the 3,000-pound waterlogged sedan seemed absurd. “I thought, There’s no way,” Willden admits. “But on the count of three, we started pushing.” Amazingly, the car started rising, and Willden found himself staring into the terrified eyes of Kenya, the Andersens’ neighbor, who had managed to find an air pocket in the backseat. Willden sliced her seat belt with his pocket knife and pulled the girl out through the broken window.
Up front, Mia was grayish blue and floating facedown in the water. Ben Belnap, a 31-year-old school psychologist and father of four, unbuckled the girl’s limp body and raced her to the bank.
Little Baylor was hidden under the dark water that flooded the still submerged side of the car. “There’s one more child!” Andersen said.
“We need to flip the car all the way.” Straining, the rescuers gave a final, superhuman shove. For an agonizing moment, the Accord teetered precariously, then splashed onto its belly.
With the car right side up, the men could see Baylor strapped into his car seat, his eyes rolled back into his head. Morgan Carlson, a 56-year-old chiropractor, gave the preschooler chest compressions, then used Willden’s knife to free the boy from his car seat.
Laid out on the side of the road, Baylor and Mia were unconscious. Belnap recalls that when he lifted Mia, he thought, “I’m carrying a dead body out of this car. She was so limp, so blue.” But before anyone could start CPR, Mia coughed up water and blinked at the strangers surrounding her. Nearby, Baylor didn’t have a pulse. Then one man squeezed him in a kind of Heimlich maneuver, and the boy started coughing and crying. Everyone erupted in cheers. “That was a huge moment of relief for me,” says Andersen.
As Mia, Baylor, and Kenya fully recovered in the following weeks, Andersen felt compelled to thank the men who had saved them. He was dumbfounded to learn that the group included a member of a search-and-rescue team, a retired Navy diver, a respiratory therapist who knew just how to help the kids stay alive, a chiropractor trained in CPR, and of course former police officer Willden, whose equipment and training were key to quickly freeing the children.
“It’s just unbelievable that you’d have that many people there who knew what to do and how to do it,” says Andersen. “A lot of people have asked me, ‘Did you witness a miracle there?’ I always say, ‘I witnessed dozens.’”