RICHFIELD, Minn. -- A state highway first responder rescued a woman and her two children from a sinking car Wednesday, after it left the roadway and landed in a holding pond in this Minneapolis suburb.
Don Machacek works for MnDOT's Freeway Incident Response Safety Team, more commonly known as the "highway helpers" in Minnesota. He was the first on the scene, on southbound Interstate 35-W at 76th Street, thanks to a little twist of fate.
"I was on Diamond Lake Road in Minneapolis, just about to head north on 35-W when the call came in," Machacek told reporters, "But fortunately I was able to flip around on city streets and get on the interstate heading south instead. I got there in just a couple of minutes."
The driver of the submerged 2003 Toyota Camry was Stella Obadiya of Hugo. She said, as a registered nurse, she knew it was important to stay calm even as the front seat was filling with water. She dialed 9-1-1 and crawled into the back seat with the children, ages 8 and 10.
"They were saying, 'Mom let's get out. Let's go'," Obadiya recalled, "I told them to start praying. And told them, 'They'll come for us, they'll come for us'."
She said she doesn't swim well, and thought it would be safest to wait until help arrived before trying to force open the door of the Camry from the inside.
"I worried that if we opened it the water would come in and sink us completely. It had stabilized, but I knew if the back seat started to flood we'd have to open the door and take our chances in the pond."
That's when Machacek pulled up and followed the tread marks until they disappeared. He could see Obadiya's sedan had left the road, broken a fence, mowed down a small tree, and plowed into the pond. He still wasn't sure if anyone was inside.
"I jumped over two fences, got down to the edge of the water and I saw three sets of eyes looking out of the back window of the vehicle," Machacek remarked, "I radioed my dispatcher, 'I'm going in.' Then I took my radio off, my wallet out, and my cell phone out and went into the pond."
He found himself stumbling at first because of the thick layer of mud at the bottom of the pond, but managed to get back on his feet and open the rear passenger side door.
MnDOT captured the episode from a traffic camera overhead. On the tape, Machacek can be seen leading Obadiya and the children toward safety. As they exited the car, more water poured in through the open door and it sank further.
"My instincts just took over," he explained later to reporters, "I thought, 'Okay, they're still in the car. I've got to go in. Nobody else is here so I got to do it.' So I did."
Obadiya told KARE she was taking her children to the Valley Fair amusement park at the time of the accident. She was looking for Exit 9, which would take her to I-494, but by mistake started to head for Exit 9-C, the 76th Street exit. That would be one exit too early.
She said as soon as she realized her mistake, she tried to slow down and pull back into the driving lanes of southbound 35-W. But at that point, Obadiya said, she could not get the brakes to respond.
"My children were saying, 'Mom! Stop! Stop!' I'm trying," Obadiya said, "I told my daughter, 'I'm mashing the brake! I'm mashing the brake!' But still the car does not stop."
She said she then drove toward the fence, hoping it would slow the vehicle.
"I didn't know there was a pond there. I just saw the fence and weeds. I thought something would stop us, but nothing did until we landed in the pond."
They've had the Camry since 2003 and never had any problems getting it to slow down or stop. Stella and her husband, Ola Obadiya, were not aware if that particular model had been affected by the recalls Toyota issued in the wake of sudden acceleration incidents.
They were focused instead Wednesday night on gratitude for the man in the orange vest and yellow hat who came to the rescue in Richfield.
"I just want to thank him," Mr. Obadiya told KARE, "As nurses we try to save lives everyday, so it's like what goes around comes around."
He was getting ready to head to his job as a nurse at Unity Hospital when Stella called to tell him there had been an accident, but that everyone was okay.
"God just used that man to rescue them today," Ola Obadiya added, "It could've been a lot, lot worse."
Machacek was anxious to get back on the road and finish his shift, helping other motorists with more routine types of distress. But MnDOT put those plans on hold by alerting the news media to his heroics.
Reporters were taken aback by how unimpressed Machacek seemed to be with his own actions. But a family in Hugo was more than impressed.
"We can call him 'Angel Don' now!" Stella quipped.
(Copyright 2010 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)