A family was rescued after its car plunged into the South Fork of the American River on April 4.
El Dorado County Fire Engine 21 responded within three minutes to a report at 2:58 p.m. that a GMC Acadia was in the river, on its side, near Highway 50 at Whitehall, said Battalion Chief Mike Pott. The car had hit a mile marker, tree and boulder before ending up in the river. The unit was returning from another vehicle accident in Kyburz — a 3/4-ton truck crossed over into oncoming traffic and flipped, injuring nine people — and the quick response time “had an impact on survivability,” Pott said.
The vehicle was about 8 feet from the river’s edge and one person, a 42-year-old female, was outside the car through the sun roof with her three daughters on the roof itself. A man who had been kayaking, Mark Divittorio, a Placerville native living in Coloma, had already begun rescuing the family trapped in the car by the time crews arrived.
“The vehicle would shift and move, the river was rising,” Divittorio wrote on Facebook. “The mom’s side of the car was submerged. She had managed to unbuckle and get her upper torso out of the sun roof. She was sitting upright and her thighs held her husband’s head above the water and kept him conscious.”
“I ran 200 feet up shore,” Divittorio told the Mountain Democrat, which took about a minute. In another minute and a half, he had the three girls — 15-year-old twins and a 4-year-old — ashore. “It was definitely a collaborative effort. People on the bank helped out. I took the (4-year-old) from the top of the SUV,” asked someone on the shore to take her, “and he didn’t hesitate.” The hand-off was made. “Everyone pitched in…it was just really good luck.”
A 51-year-old male driver, identified as Christian Lemler of Livermore, was trapped by the steering wheel. His wife had been holding his head out of the water by her legs, Pott said. Lemler’s legs were tangled in the wreckage, and all that was keeping his head above water was his seatbelt, Divittorio said. Though he had a knife, he realized that cutting through the seatbelt would leave only the kayaker himself able to keep Lemler’s had from going under. Lemler’s wife helped keep him conscious. Lemler did lose consciousness a few times, Divittorio said, and he had to keep waking him up.
Divittorio had seen a fire truck about five minutes before, and yelled to people on the shore to tell dispatch that an engine was just upstream. Three minutes later, crews were assisting the rescue effort.
Crews threw a life jacket to Divittorio, who was able to get the life jacket under the man’s head, allowing him to stay above water while they used the Jaws of Life to cut the roof off the car. Using a backboard, crews and the kayaker were able to get the man to shore. “(Divittorio) helped hold the back board when the driver was freed and put on that back board and then he helped with putting the back board into a rescue litter. He assisted with carrying the rescue litter through the moving water to shore,” Pott said. ”He helped get the three kids from the SUV to shore. He assisted us where he could; holding things, moving things from shore to the SUV and back,” Pott said. “The firefighters were using the “Jaws of Life” or Hurst tool to cut the roof off.”
All five occupants of the vehicle had injuries. The father had major injuries, while the mother and children had minor to moderate injuries and all were cold from the water.
The father was transported to Marshall by Medic 89 of Cameron Park Cal Fire. The three daughters and mother were transported by Medic 17 of El Dorado County Fire.
“One of the twins’ condition changed and a third medic unit was requested,” Pott said. Medic 17 met Medic 25, also of EDCFD, “at the Sly Park exit and the one twin and the 4-year-old were transported by M25 to (UC Davis) Medical Center. The mom and other twin stayed with M17 and were transported to Marshall Hospital.”
El Dorado County Fire Department was assisted by Cameron Park Fire Department, Cal Fire, CHP and the Sheriff’s Department. Deputies assisted by staying downstream and were prepared to catch anyone who was washed away by the river. As the weather was “stormy,” Pott said, crews were unable to utilize helicopters.
Divittorio credits his experience kayaking and being equipped with a dry suit, life jacket and helmet in rescuing the family. “Kayakers look out for one another … Rescue and safety become instinctual.” That mentality helped him prepare for the incident, which lasted between 18 and 22 minutes by his estimation. “I jumped right into the water to help quickly.”
He also said that EDCFD “did a great job. I’ve seen them training. They’re really awesome.” He said that on a summer day, rafting in Coloma, about a thousand people will be on the river. “Training is super important.” That training was in full action that day. They had “the right manpower, the right tools, the right training,” he said. “I’m really, really thankful they showed.” He also noted the extremely fast response time.
“I’m very thankful they survived,” the kayaker said of the family. “Everyone pitched in … It was just really good luck.”