Real life: How I survived drowning

Reader's Digest Editors

What started as a normal day for Jaime Rios and her trusty labrador quickly became the stuff of nightmares. Here's how she escaped. 

It’s the Saturday before Christmas, 1am, and my chocolate Lab, Stormy, and I are headed for a bird-watching site a few hours north. The weather forecast calls for the possibility of fog, but the drive down is clear. Along the way, I stop off for petrol and lock Stormy in my truck before going inside the station. It’s a habit I started after I met a sad old fisherman looking for his German shorthair, which had been stolen from his unlocked car at a café. 

labrador
Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos

Back on the road, as I approach the marsh, the fog begins to build. At a curve, I hit a soft shoulder and lose control of the truck. I try to correct, but it’s too late. With a clang, the back of the pickup goes over a steep bank. The truck slides backward and down, then a splash. There is a series of flashes, clicks, and whirs before all lights and electronics go out. I pray that the water isn’t deep. 

At first, the scene seems peaceful, almost beautiful. In the dim light, I can barely make out that I’m in a large canal floating gently downstream and spinning slowly in the current. I try to open the door, but it’s locked. The water has shorted the electrical system. I remember that I have a glass breaker. It’s in the centre console. I clench the tool and give the passenger window a sharp hit.

"The inside of my truck cab has become a giant snow globe, and I’m a captive within it"

The breaker merely bounces off. I hit it again, with the same result. I try a two-handed swing but only manage to scratch the window. With each failed attempt, the urgency of my situation builds. Water gathers at my feet. I lie down on the seat and try to kick out the window, but my feet just bounce off. By this point, the truck’s exterior is mostly submerged and the water is pushing against the window. The water level is cresting over the seat, and cold water soaks my back and neck. 

My toolbox is behind the seat. If I can reach a wrench, surely it would break the window. In order to get to the toolbox, I need to dive for it. I go under but can’t pry it loose. I come up for air and go down a second time. In my descent, I become aware of objects floating around me: a squeegee, a foldable windshield cover, a small pillow. The inside of my truck cab has become a giant snow globe, and I’m a captive within it. 

how to escape drowning car

While wrestling with the toolbox, my hand bumps against my fire extinguisher. I grasp the handle and cylinder and use it as a battering ram. The extinguisher, too, merely bounces off the glass. The water level has risen, so I’m now swinging the extinguisher underwater. My only hope is to weaken the window through repeated impact. By this time, the water level is about four inches from the ceiling, and I have to gulp air, submerge, and take as many swings as my breath will allow. My fear has grown to the point that it’s now approaching panic. A part of me just wants to give up rational behavior and scream at the top of my lungs. 

They say that in a near-death experience, your life flashes before your eyes. Every thought I’ve ever had, every feeling I’ve ever felt, rushes in. I think of all the people I’ve known, the experiences I’ve had, and the experiences I’ll never have. It takes all my remaining willpower to put those thoughts and feelings aside and concentrate on the task at hand. But then another thought comes to mind, a plea: “God, please help me.”

"It’s dark and cold, and I’m exhausted"

An internal voice responds, “You have a little more time. What will you do with it?” It’s then that I realise the water level has stopped rising and is holding at two inches from the ceiling of the truck.

“I’m going to try harder,” I respond.

I continue taking gulps of air, submerging, and swinging the fire extinguisher as hard as I can. With each cycle, the air becomes thinner. It’s dark and cold, and I’m exhausted. I contemplate giving up; then I remember that Stormy is in the back. I continue swinging away, and suddenly the impact feels different. I extend my left hand and feel a hole in the window. I’m going to live! I use the fire extinguisher to break away the rest of the glass and swim out the window. Once at the back door, I twist the handle and am sickened by the realisation that it’s locked. I pry my fingers under the door and lift with everything I have. The door locks break, and Stormy swims out. 

drowning car how to escape
Photo by Illumination Marketing

I swim for shore and try to climb up the side of the canal, but the sides are smooth, wet concrete sloped at a 45-degree angle. I go back to the truck, sit on top, and rest. When I pull Stormy up, I notice that my hands hurt. The tips of my fingers have worn off, I have multiple cuts from ripping the door open, and the glass breaker punched a 50p-size hole in my right palm all the way down to the bone. I can’t feel or move the middle and index fingers of that hand. 

I take the time to think things through. The canal sits below the road and is screened by a wall of rushes, so I can’t count on help from a passing motorist. But concrete canals usually have ladders every few hundred yards along their banks. The fog and darkness prevent me from seeing farther than ten yards. I must wait for better visibility to confirm the existence of a ladder. I entered the water at approximately 5am It will be a long, cold, and painful wait. 

I spend the hours until daylight kneeling against Stormy to conserve body heat. The sun finally peeks over the horizon, and at about 8 am, the fog lifts. About 70 yards upstream, I see what appears to be a ladder. I must be sure. If I swim that way and there is no ladder, I won’t be able to make it back. Then movement catches my eye. A small flock of blackbirds is drinking along the water’s edge, near what I’m hoping are the ladder rungs. I mentally plead for one of them to give me a sign that confirms my hunch. As if on cue, a bird flits up and perches atop a rung one foot above the water. 

I step into the water and onto the truck bumper. The cold takes my breath away. I push off and start to swim. I’m hypothermic, exhausted, and my legs are cramping. When I reach the ladder, I’m too tired to grab the rung just above the water, so I reach for one that I hope is submerged beneath it. When my left-hand finds it, I know that Stormy and I will be OK. 

Though embarrassed about losing control of my vehicle, I’m pleased that I didn’t panic as I went through the problem-solving process. I also recognise that I had some divine help: little birds to show me the way and the gift of more time—not just in the submerged truck, but also to live. 

 

How to escape a submerged car

  • Don’t call 999. Responders probably won’t get there in time to save you, and a ticking clock is your enemy.
  • Turn on your interior lights, then unlock your doors. A vehicle’s electronics system may work for only a brief time once submerged.
  • You have about 30 seconds to open a window and swim out before the water pressure pushes the glass against the doorframe, making it tough to open. 
  • If you’re too late, break a side window (the windshield is re-inforced and too hard to crack). Your last option: Wait for the car to submerge and the inside to fill with water, which will equalise the pressure on the door and allow it to be opened.
     

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