Paramedic Heroics

“We can’t swim! We can’t swim!” I started yelling at her repeatedly, “How many people were in your car”? “My husband! My husband!” she yelled.


It isn’t often we get to take the time to recognize a crew for truly heroic actions in saving a life – let alone the lives of an entire family.  Below are the details of an incident directly reported and written by one of the Paramedics Plus crew members involved, paramedic Rebecca Foster. Ironically, this incident occurred on Father’s Day – which, under other circumstances, could have turned out very differently for this family of four.

During a shift in June, my partner, EMT Nikki Spencer, and I had just cleared a call at Alameda Hospital. We were leaving the island enroute to our post assignment when we were assigned a code 3 call in the area of 87th & Holly.  Our GPS system routed us to take International Blvd through Oakland but knowing the number of stop lights and how busy it can be (especially at 1645) we decided to take Doolittle instead. We were heading code 3 down Doolittle when we noticed multiple cars pulling over and people getting out. Someone flagged us down so we were thinking it was a minor MVA. As we approached the scene we noticed an older model 4 door dark car, possibly a Camry, that had veered off the road way and was sinking in the water. It was on its wheels and was starting to tip nose down with people trapped inside (later revealed Dad, Mom and 2 children). I got on the radio to advise that we had emergency traffic, “car in the water with occupants trapped and that we were at”……. I stopped and gave the radio to my partner, Nikki, because I wasn’t sure where we were and she is more familiar with the area.  We knew we’d need additional resources but we also requested a rescue boat.

As I ran around the front of the ambulance two bystanders, Erik and Tracey, ran up yelling

“they’re going to drown, they’re going to drown!”

car-in-oakland-estuary then Tracey ran down the rocks and entered the water and started swimming toward the car which was now nose down with water moving up the driver/front passenger windows fast. Erik and I were still at the top of the rocks. He attempted to hand me his cell phone and camera so he could go in but I had dropped the medical gloves that were in my hands and was attempting to remove my radio off my belt and I yelled “just put it down” then he turned to go down the rocks. Tracey started to panic and yell from the water

“we need to break the window, we need to break the window!”

as the water had made its way to the rear seat windows. The car was almost fully submerged! At that moment, it dawned on me that I had the knife my husband had just given to me as a gift a week before; a tactical knife with a window punch.

I was still attempting to get my radio off my belt.  Eric had turned to start down the rock and I yelled for him to wait. He turned around and I handed him the knife from my left pant pocket and told him “This is made for breaking glass, hit it with this point,” and showed him the point. He took the knife and went down to the rocks and into the water. I got my radio off, dropped it to the ground and went to take my boots off. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to swim with them once they were water logged. In a split second I decided to leave them on because of the rocks and glass; plus I had no idea what was on the bottom under water. I went down the rocks and into the water… My feet could no longer touch. I began to swim.

As Erik approached the car he handed the knife off to Tracey. She began hitting the glass with the side of the knife, not the tip. The window wasn’t breaking. I began screaming “Hit it with the point! Hit it with the point!” through mouthfuls of water. The water had now covered all the windows with just the trunk sticking straight up with part of the rear window exposed. The family was huddled up in the pocket of air of the back window yelling, screaming, and banging on the foggy window; a visual I will never forget. Strangely, I could not hear the cries; just witness the panic on their faces. Erik took the knife from Tracey and began striking the window. I was a few strokes away from the vehicle when the window shattered and water rushed in. A little boy came out first and Tracey grabbed him and started to swim him towards shore.  Then out of the car came a little girl followed by a woman, the mother I’d soon find out. Erik grabbed the girl and we both had a hold of the woman who was screaming,

“We can’t swim! We can’t swim!” I started yelling at her repeatedly, “How many people were in your car”?  “My husband! My husband!” she yelled.

Erik Schorken
At this point Erik had a hold on the woman and girl. I turned toward the car which only had part of the trunk showing, no windows left. I saw nothing. The car was almost gone. He, the father, was gone…

What felt like an eternity went by and then suddenly an arm lunged from the water followed by the man’s head gasping for air. I grabbed the man’s arm and he frantically started to grab at me. I yelled at him, ‘”Don’t drown me, don’t drown me! Stop it! Flip over! Flip over!” And he did. He turned on his side, I grabbed him and we started towards the rocks. I was yelling “Swim, swim!” Water started splashing against the lens of my sunglasses. I hadn’t even realized I was wearing them. It was then that I had the first conscience thought about physically being in the water. I started thinking the water wasn’t that cold… I thought it would have been cold.
We made it to the rocks where my partner, Nikki, was almost waste deep assisting people out of the water with another bystander, Andy. As I made it to solid ground I turned around and looked back… the car was gone. It was as if there had never been a car there just minutes before. My partner and I took everyone towards our ambulance. Nikki put the mother, daughter (7), and son (9) in the ambulance. I started barking orders at Nikki who yelled at me, “Rebecca, STOP! You’re telling me too many things to do at once!” I got in the ambulance and turned on the heat and got blankets. Nikki began removing the family’s wet clothes and wrapping them in blankets. The boy was shivering; I went to the cab and got my fleece jacket for him. Nikki got down all the bandage material and began treating the family’s wounds. OPD then showed up along with my Supervisor, Nate Hausel.
When I returned to the back of the ambulance, resources had begun to arrive. Oakland Fire arrived, an additional supervisor, Crystal Hopkins, along with two ambulances who immediately began rendering aide. The other ambulances and Oakland Fire were attending to Tracey, Eric, and Andy who all refused transport and were signed out by fire.  I was bandaging the father’s hands which were bleeding, when (I believe it was) P+ Bryant Parker and P+ Rob Culazzo came up and told me that “They would take it from there, it was ok, they got it.”

Someone wrapped me in a blanket; I hadn’t realized I was shivering or that my hand was bleeding.

The mother thanked Nikki and I repeatedly, “for saving their lives”, then the father came up to me and thanked me, hugging me repeatedly. He told me he does not know how to swim and that he believes he “dozed off”.  After transferring care, I went to the two bystanders who assisted, Erik and Andy. I asked them if they would mind giving me their names and phone numbers so I could pass it on to the EMS agency. I told them I thought they deserved to be recognized for their heroic actions. They wrote down there information. I thanked them and told them they “saved that families life” and then embraced one, then the other. I requested the 3rd bystander’s, Tracey, contact info from OPD since she had already left the scene. Nikki was able to get all pertinent information for the family of four. We cleared the scene and returned to deployment.

Once at deployment Elise told us she was going to find us some clothes and asked our sizes. We informed her we had some in our cars, but no boots.  Crystal told us we needed to shower right away, that she had spoken with Dave Beahm and that we were cleared to go home after we showered. She again told us “great job”. We both showered, clocked out and drove home.

This is just one example of the impromptu heroic actions our medics and EMTs are willing to do every day in Alameda County.  Whether it’s making sure an elderly patient has eaten or taken her pills prior to an AMA, giving a blanket to a homeless person whose cold or in this case, jumping into water to rescue a family from drowning, our EMS providers do a great job…..

To follow up, this story was passed on to the EMS Authority for a Medal of Valor award for the crew and Civilian Hero award for the three bystanders. Be sure to check back soon for pictures and follow up from this heartwarming story, including the family’s reunification with the “heroes” who rescued them at the California EMSA Awards in early December.

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Alameda County EMS is a high performance EMS system located in the Bay Area of Northern California.There are over 140,000 9-1-1 call each year in the system.
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1 Comment

  1. c.c.

    Great job you guys

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