Location: Phoenix, Arizona
Date: August 22, 1992
Ngan Tran certainly didn't expect a flood when she was driving home alone on August 22, 1992. Heavy rains had been falling for the past couple of days, which is very unusual in this desert area. Ngan had no way of knowing how bad it could get, but she did notice that many of the roads seemed to be filling with water. She kept driving.
A road crossing what is normally a dry stream bed was blocked off with a police barricade to keep cars from traveling through. The rains had caused the stream bed to fill up, and now water was cascading across the road as if it were a newly formed river. The barricade had been set up to protect cars and their drivers from being swept away by these rushing waters.
As Ngan approached the barricade, she was confused. She didn't understand that this barricade was meant to keep her and others off the flooding road. She needed to use this road to get to her destination, and she wouldn't turn around now. She stepped on the gas, turned the wheel, and drove around the barricade, not realizing the danger that lay ahead.
At first it was just a wet, splashy drive along a slick road. The car would occasionally hydroplane but she held tightly to the steering wheel and continued ahead. The sky was still pouring rain in the desert mountains, and the downstream washes were now swollen beyond their banks. As Ngan continued driving along the blocked-off road, the flooding grew worse. Although the rain had lessened along this route, she was beginning to realize that it was a serious mistake to have come this way.
Finally, her car could go no farther. The once dry desert was now a raging river, filling with water faster and faster. Ngan's car was hit by a wave, then another. She stopped the car--although the water had pretty much done that already--and watched in horror as her car was swept by the current off the main road. She was now engulfed by the growing flood.
A motorist passing along the main road nearby had noticed the car drive around the barricade and checked to see where it had gone. Now, squinting her eyes against the splashing water whipped up by the wind, the motorist could barely see the top of the car and the headlights. It was going to be underwater soon, and someone was still in it! She reached for her mobile telephone and called 911.
Nearly hysterical, she told the 911 dispatcher that a car had washed off the road and was nearly underwater. The headlights were now under the growing river and the person inside the car needed help immediately. The police were dispatched right away.
Arriving on the scene only moments later, the police could see the top of the car in the middle of the flood--and nothing more. A person was trapped in the car, and the first thought was that whoever it was could not survive for long. They had to get to work immediately.
A police helicopter arrived just then and shone its high-beam light onto the car; they could see the woman trapped inside. As long as she stayed put, there was a chance they could save her. If she tried to open the door and climb out into the raging waters, she would be swept away and drowned. They could only hope she wouldn't try to escape the car.
The helicopter belonged to the Phoenix Police Department's Air Support Unit, and this was copilot Sally Smith's first swift-water rescue. Her first concern was for the woman inside the car: How much air did she have? How much water was in the car? There was very little time to get her out before the car itself was washed away by the flood.
It was after 11pm, and the wind was picking up. The rescue was going to be difficult; now they had to attempt it in the dark. A second helicopter with a rescue-certified pilot was brought in to execute this delicate but crucial rescue.
Ron Cummings, a member of the swift-water rescue team, was dispatched to the scene and would join the helicopter crew to attempt a daring and unpredictable rescue. Ron would have to ride out on the helicopter skids and be set on top of the car. It would be his job to get the woman out and bring her back aboard the helicopter to safety. It was a very risky plan, and they didn't know if it would work. But they had to try something--and it had to be now.
Ron watched as the huge helicopter lowered itself to a point close enough for him to jump. The thundering helicopter propellers were deafening, and Ron had to scream to make himself be heard. He waited for the signal from the pilot to let him know when it was safe to go. Ron needed to keep his hands free to save Ngan, so he had to leave the safety floatation equipment aboard the helicopter.
Slowly, steadily, the helicopter lowered Ron toward the car. Attached to the helicopter by only a safety cable and standing on the helicopter's skids, Ron was soaking wet. Inch by inch, Ron was lowered onto the roof of the car, which was almost completely covered with water. As Ron landed on the roof, his feet slipped and he swayed, nearly falling headlong into the rapidly swirling waters below. After a moment, he regained his balance and was now stable on the car roof.
With great care, Ron leaned over, broke the back window of the car, and helped Ngan out, while the helicopter overhead returned to him to drop off the floatation equipment. This time around, the helicopter had to get as close as possible to Ron and the car so the equipment could be reached. The helicopter was a large, loud, and not very graceful machine. Between the wind and the tiny little target they were aiming for, the pilot had a tough job maneuvering his helicopter back to the car. If it were too far away, Ron wouldn't be able to reach the safety equipment; if it were too close, the helicopter would knock the rescuer and victim in the dangerous water. Ron grabbed the life vest and put it on Ngan.
Rescuer and victim were now too shadows against the flood of lights from the two helicopters, waiting to be rescued. The wind was stirred up by the propellers of the helicopter and the water lapped up along the edge of the car's roof, rising higher and higher, threatening to pull them down. It would be just minutes before the car disappeared under the river--and the two people with it.
The first few rescue attempts were disasters. Each time Ron reached out to touch the helicopter skids, they were just out of his grasp or he received a shock from the static charge built up by the whirring blades. Each failed attempt meant the helicopter had to move away and try again to get close enough for the rescue.
Finally, after about the fifth try, Ron was able to securely take hold of the helicopter skids. Holding them steady, he stepped onto the skids and pulled Ngan up with him. They were both out of danger and thankful to be alive.
Looking down at the scene below, Ron could see the water completely envelop the car. Later, the pressure of the flooding waters pushed the car out of its precarious spot. In one sweep, the car was gone, washed away by the rapids.
Ngan had been trapped in her water-bound car for over an hour. Imagine the terror, the desperation she felt as she looked out her windows and saw the rising level of water surrounding her. In the darkness, she was alone and isolated and had no way to communicate with the outside world. She didn't know if she would be saved, would drown, or even know how to swim, so she couldn't escape.
The real reason Ngan may have survived, however, was ironic: she didn't know how to swim. She could certainly not attempt to get out of the car and swim to safety, so she stayed put, waiting for help to arrive. Had she tried to climb out through a window, rescuers agree, she would have been quickly and violently swept away by the raging flood. Swimming never would help her at all, because she would have been powerless to fight the current.
Thanks to the quick-thinking motorist along the road, 911 dispatchers were able to evaluate the situation and send the right emergency crew to rescue Ngan. The courageous team of pilots and rescuers pushed themselves to the limit to make this rescue a success. They worked as a team, each with a specific and important job that had to be done. And they did it--even at those tense moments when they didn't think they could.
Today, Ngan and her ten-year-old daughter, Lynn, are forever grateful to these brave men and women. Ngan was particularly impressed with the way these people pulled together and really cared about rescuing her. Her faith in people was renewed. Lynn gives credit to the rescue team for their heroic efforts under extremely difficult circumstances. They saved her mother, which is about the most important thing in the world.
Ngan advises everyone who drives to pay attention to road signs, barricades, and signals. They are put there for a reason--for your own safety. If she had not ignored the barricade blocking the flooded road, she wouldn't have been caught on the verge of death. She won't again dismiss those important signs, and hopes that none of you will either.