NewsChannel 12 investigates how to escape from submerged car

Trapped in submerged car: How to escape safely (Pt. 2)

EASTERN CAROLINA - An average of 400 Americans a year drown in submerged cars, and North Carolina routinely ranks in the top 10 states in the country, according to experts. In fact, there had been five incidents in Eastern Carolina that killed 11 people in the last three years.

With those alarming statistics in mind, NewsChannel 12 investigates what drivers should do if their car goes into water.

According to Jim McConnel of the New Bern Fire Department, one of the most important things in that type of situation is to have the right mindset.

"If at all possible, stay calm, cool and collected, and think about what's going on.," said McConnel. "This is not something you are prepared for every day, and you don't think about it every day. But it does happen throughout the United States."

When a car become submerged, time is of the essence.

"You're looking at 30 seconds to maybe up to 2 minutes, depending on the type of vehicle you're riding in," McConnel explained.

Experts said one common mistake is wasting precious seconds looking for a cell phone and calling for help.

"Our response time in getting to these places where these vehicles is not in the same time frame as that 30 seconds to 2 minutes," McConnel said.

Dr. Gordon Geisbrecht, of the University of Manitoba, is a renowned expert in sinking cars. He has done numerous studies and recommends getting the seat belt off first, then unhooking any children in the car before finding a way out.

The first instinct is to open the door. But once water rises up to the door jam, the pressure would make it very hard to open the door, experts said. But if getting out through the door is the only option, let the car fill up with water. This will cause the pressure on the door to equalize, and as long as its not damaged, the door will open.

But not many people in a panic situation would want to wait for the car to fill up with water. For those individuals, there is another option: try and get electric windows to row down.

One of the concerns people have is that water would short circuit the car's battery and the electric windows wouldn't work. Veteran mechanic Nick Perrine said the batteries could last longer than one might think.

"Batteries are mounted high in the car, plus the batteries now are sealed, so they should hold up a little longer underwater," Perrine said. "In the old days, you had the batteries with the caps that water could run right in and ruin the battery right away, and you'd be done."


But what can drivers do when the windows won't go down, or there are too much pressure against them? NewsChannel 12 decided to test out some tools that can be purchased at chain or automotive stores.

Sims Recycling of New Bern let us use a minivan that the business was planning on crushing. We then armed ourselves with several tools or extricators made specifically to break tempered glass.

I borrowed a co-worker's small black-handled plastic hammer that has a metal point, and the results were not good.  I used the device to hit the van's window about 40 times at several locations, but the glass did not break.

Then, I tried another co-worker's small plastic center punch, by placing the flat end against the window and pushing.  A spring loaded punch or metal rod was supposed to break the window, but it didn't work either.

Later, Jim McConnell of the New Bern Fire Department let us use a special hammer that the NBFD uses. It has a seat belt cutter and more weight in the head of the hammer. They purchased it from Moore Medical. When I used the hammer, it broke the van's window on the first try.  

We also had other NewsChannel 12 employees try different devices. Gary Allen is in his late 50's and decided to try to break the van's window with his cane.  It didn't work.  He then tried the black-handled hammer, and it also failed.  Finally, he used the orange-handled hammer that the NBFD lent us, and it worked on the first try.  

NewsChannel 12 Executive Producer Elizabeth Bynum has a 2-year-old boy and a baton she keeps in her SUV to ward off unwanted attention.  She decided to try to break the van's window her high heel shoe first.  But she quickly kicked it to the curb. Then, Elizabeth used her baton with the round metal end, but it didn't make a crack in the glass. Next, she decided to try a spring-loaded center punch that looks like a big needle. She pushed it against the window and it popped the second time she tried it. 

Carolyn Stevens has lived in New Bern since 1974.  She decided to try a co-worker's small hammer first, but it repeatedly bounced off the test van's window. Then, she tried the small black-handled hammer Gary and I had trouble with, and broke through the glass.

Morning anchor Anna Bulszewicz decided to try a common item in a car: a tire iron.  But it also bounced off the window.  She also tried the black-handled hammer and it didn't work. Anna then used the orange-handled hammer from the NBFD, and it worked with one swing again.

Meteorologist Les Still went for straight muscle: he wanted to try a 2-pound hammer.  He forecasted success, and he was right: the back window shattered with one swing.

Most hammers or extricators cost $10 to $15.  We found the ones with more weight in the head of the hammer to work best.  Dr. Gordon Geisbrecht suggests that you find a way to hang the extricator on a string from the rear view mirror. You can also velcro them to the inside of the console or middle storage area so you can get to them quickly. They need to be secured or anchored, especially if the vehicle flips. 

But when doing my research, I could not find one person who said using one of those extricators helped get them out of a sinking car and saved their life. 

One man, who survived a crash in 1972 when his car went into a creek in Pamlico County, said the two most important things you need if you are in a sinking car are luck and the grace of God.   

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