Nickolas Brandt has worked as a Florida police officer for eight years -- long enough to know that calls of cars plunging into canals rarely end well.
“There’s not a lot of time, maybe three or four minutes before it’s too late to do anything,” said Brandt, also part of the Jupiter Police Department’s dive team. “Unfortunately, in most of these situations, things don’t work out and people don’t survive.”
Thanks to Brandt and several colleagues, last week was different.
At about 4:45 p.m. Sept. 14, Brandt and other officers responded to reports of a motorist driving a car into a canal.
Brandt was the first to arrive and found the submerged car with an unconscious woman behind the wheel and rising water around her chest level.
“The car was filling up slowly,” Brandt said. “In a short time, she would have been underwater.”
A bystander handed Brandt a crowbar he used to break the car’s rear window. By then, Officer Matt Owen had pulled a rear door open, and rescue efforts turned to getting the woman out of the sinking vehicle. The race against the clock hit a snag when the woman’s arm got caught in a seat belt.
By then other officers had arrived, and the woman was safely removed.
“It sounded like chaos at the time, but it was very controlled,” Officer James Albano said of the scene at the canal. “Everybody found a job and did it well.”
The woman was taken to a hospital with no life-threatening injuries, according to Jupiter police. Fire Rescue crews took over after the woman was pulled out of the car, and the officers that saved her life have not heard from her.
Vehicle crashes into canals were the third-leading cause of drowning deaths in the area from 2011 to 2015, according to the Palm Beach County Drowning Prevention Coalition. Such crashes were responsible for 30 deaths, behind only drownings in pools at 58; and the ocean, at 38.
Reaching victims of submerged cars quickly is imperative, Brandt said. That’s often difficult on the county’s traffic-choked roads, especially during rush hour. Even with lights and sirens activated, Brandt said motorists often fail to yield to emergency vehicles, cutting into the precious seconds needed for a possible rescue.
“This time it worked out,” Brandt said.
The rescue drew a public response from Jupiter Police Chief Frank Kitzerow, who praised his officers “for their quick actions and life-saving efforts.”
Owen, a Jupiter officer for seven years, said he received a lot of questions about the rescue from curious family members and friends.
“It’s exciting to have a successful outcome,” Owen said. “You’re happy, you’re excited but also — and I don’t know about the other guys — extremely tired once it was over. The adrenaline starting wearing off a little bit.”