9 Investigates how to escape a submerged vehicle

Updated:

Loading
ORLANDO, Fla. —

Calling 911 in most emergencies is a top priority, but 9 Investigates found that in certain accidents, it could be the worst mistake of your life.

Eyewitness News anchor Greg Warmoth discovered that calling emergency dispatchers if your car goes into one of central Florida's many lakes or ponds could turn deadly.

It was only a drill, but Eyewitness News recorded a vehicle submersion demonstration that shows just how quickly a car will fill with water. You only have seconds to do the right thing, Warmoth noted.

An instructor at the demonstration explained that if your car sinks, you only have about one minute to get out.

Chrystal Casale knows the deadly reality firsthand. Her 23-year-old sister drowned when her car flipped in a central Florida drainage ditch just a few miles from home.

The vehicle, Casale said, "Didn't make the turn. (The) car ended up flipping into the water."

Florida Highway Patrol officials said most car submersions are deadly.

"They are not common, even though we have a lot of bodies of water off our roadways, but unfortunately, when someone does go in to the water, a lot are fatal," said FHP Sgt. Kim Montes.

Warmoth learned one of the most compelling car submersion stories happened along State Road 429.

The driver, Umberto Delgado, didn't navigate an exit ramp and wound up driving his truck into the water.

A disturbing 911 call reveals how Delgado was repeatedly asked about his physical location instead of being told to get out of his vehicle.

"I'm off the road. I'm in a retention pond right now," he said at one point during the call.

"Are you off?" the dispatcher asked during the call.

"I'm trying to get out right now," he said.

"What's the address of the emergency?" he was asked at another point in the call.

"I'm not sure, ma'am," Delgado responded.

"Which direction are you heading, hon?" the dispatcher asked.

Delgado, who had no injuries and no drugs or alcohol in his system, did not survive the submersion. He was asked at least 10 questions by dispatchers during the nearly two minutes of the call Eyewitness News reviewed.

Some critics said the fact that Delgado died in the retention pond is solid evidence supporting why 911 operators need better training.

Chrystal Casale, the sister of the other submerged vehicle victim, listened to part of the Delgado 911 call, shaking her head.

"That's horrible," she said. "They've asked him the same questions over and over, and no one knew what to do. That poor guy."

Orange County Fire Rescue maintains that it has protocols in place for these situations. But officials there admit that one of the first priorities is to find out a person's location.

"Our dispatchers have a very specific set of questions they will ask, starting with your location," said John Mulhall with Orange County Fire Rescue.

"You have one minute to get out," said Gordon Giesbrecht, a vehicle submersion escape expert who argues 911 protocols must change.

That way, if someone does call to report a sinking vehicle, they are immediately told to get out of the car, he said.

But what if your car does go in the water?

Eyewitness News put a car door in the bottom of a swimming pool. Certified divers used an inexpensive tool to punch through auto glass underwater, causing the window to shatter, which would allow occupants inside to swim out and up to the surface.

Sadly, Delgado was never told to get out.

"I'm trying to get out right now," he was heard saying during the 911 call.

"OK, hold on a second. You said East Plant Street and State Road 429?" the dispatcher asked.

But after that inquiry, the call went silent.

Scenes like Delgado's have been repeated over and over across central Florida through the years. Cars plunge into the water and sink before the drivers can get out alive.

It's a problem that has motivated Orange County rescue officials to do weekend trainings. Every first responder is now learning how to save someone trapped in a sinking car.

They said they've seen too many victim recoveries and not enough rescues.

"The first units on the scene can make access to the vehicle and the victims that are under the water and get them out quickly," said Orange County Battalion Chief Jon Haskett.

Orange County rescue workers said if they get to victims in time, they may be able to resuscitate them.

But Giesbrecht said waiting for even trained first responders is too risky.

"When a vehicle goes in the water, the car is going to sink, and you only have one minute to get out," Giesbrecht explained.

Dispatchers are trained to get your location first and may not tell you to get out until it's too late.

Delgado made that fatal mistake. For some reason, Delgado did not open his window and climb to safety. He instead stayed on the phone and talked to dispatchers as long as he could.

Experts said even electric windows can be rolled down briefly after a car has hit the water.

Warmoth and other Eyewitness News divers showed how the glass-punching tool can fit on a key chain and be used to shatter glass underwater.

Warmoth also discovered that it's a mistake to let the car fill with water, thinking there will be equal pressure on both sides of the door and it will therefore be easier to open.

"Because the doors, due to the pressure inside and outside the car, if it's in the water, the doors will not open," Haskett explained.

FHP said the best rule of thumb is to get out of the car as if it were a burning house.

"You cannot wait for someone to come rescue you," Montes said. "You have to save yourself."