Lifesaver: A Woman Tries To Save A Drowning Victim 12/12/2002
A woman recalls trying to save a drowning victim.
Thursday, December 12, 2002
Photo: Life Preservers--Left, members of the Monterey Fire Department bring the victim to shore after freeing her from the vehicle. Right, Nikki Hourihan tries to warm up.
Photos by: Randy Tunnell
On Nov. 14, 63-year-old Lillian Pizzo lost control of her red Mazda as she drove along Glenwood Circle toward Aguajito Road. The car struck a fire hydrant before landing in a pond across from the Hilton, where it began to sink. Though several passersby jumped in to try to help while emergency crews were en route, Pizzo, who was unconscious, was trapped inside the car. She died the next day. Nikki Hourihan, 26, was one of the attempted rescuers. The Boston-area native, who is getting her Emergency Medical Technician certificate from Monterey Peninsula College, enters the college''s fire academy in January. This is Hourihan''s recollection of the events.
''I didn''t even notice the car at first. I saw this huge geyser going up from the fire hydrant. I thought, ''Wow, that''s kinda cool-looking,'' then I thought, ''Maybe it''s an accident.'' Then I saw a guy running down the hill and saw a car in the water.
"It was submerged up to its rear view mirrors--that engine''s heavy, it sinks fast. So I took my shoes off and put my keys down. I ran over, checked it out and jumped in.
"I was a kayak tour guide and we had training. They teach you if there''s a water emergency--it''s this thing so you''ll remember--they go, ''Throw, tow, then go.'' First you throw them a life preserver, then you tow them in and as a last resort you jump in yourself.
"But considering--she was in her car, there was nobody to throw anything to--my only option was to just go in. There must have been two other guys who jumped in, too.
"One was trying to open the drivers side door, but it was stuck. The other one was trying to kick the windshield in. He''s the guy whose leg got all bloody. It was vicious. It was absolutely horrible. Not absolutely horrible, but it was difficult. You knew someone was in there, you know what I mean? I didn''t know at the time what her condition was. I''m thinking, ''She''s panicking, she''s trying to hold her breath.''
"They kicked in the windshield enough to break the pressure seal on the door so they could open it. It sounds like nothing was happening, but it was. We were all treading water, trying to keep ourselves breathing, swimming in our own clothes.
"The other gentleman looked at me and said, ''I got it open.'' So I went down, but the water was so cold it hurt. I tried to open my eyes but it hurt. It was dark and disgusting. The water was so murky that you couldn''t see through it.
"So I was feeling around and felt where the door top was. I think I held it open with my foot, and I took a breath and went down.
"I remember the feeling of her teeth. I know that''s weird. I tried to give her a breath. I don''t know if it went in. I can only hope. I came back up and took a breath.
"I''m sure it was the best intention, but somehow the back window got broken in, so what air there was in the car holding it up ran out and the car started to sink. I''m not blaming anybody. None of us were certified, trained. We were just trying to do the best we could. I didn''t know who these guys were. For all I knew they were certified or something.
"I came back up and looked at him and we just sort of looked at each other. Keith, I think his name was. I went back down and that''s when I realized that her seatbelt was on. Neither one of us could get down into the car to open her seatbelt. I went down and gave her another breath. I tried to reach at her seatbelt. It seems like a really long time, but was probably like three minutes.
"Then he and I were just sort of looking at each other. There were sirens and lights, Monterey Fire showed up. They were great. They were amazing; they''d cut her out and pulled her out after a couple of minutes on scene. They were very well trained. PG was there with their water rescue team. They were great too.
"They pulled her out and started to do CPR, and they got a pulse back. I wasn''t convinced that she was dead [when they took her out]. All you can do is hope. If you gave up the first time you tried nothing would get done.
"Afterward, I was just kind of reassessing what I had done that worked, what I had done that didn''t work. It really happened quickly. It was really overwhelming.
"Not to sound callous, but people die. So I was emotional, but I hoped I had done something good and not hurt her. You know what I mean? It was--it was weird. It was a woman, you know? I remembered touching her teeth, I remembered how her skin felt underwater--and how the fire department came and how humbled I was.
"It was frustrating. Say it was on land--I know how to do CPR, the Heimlich--I know basic lifesaving skills, but it was in an entirely different environment, underwater. You gotta do it fast. I don''t know how to pry open doors and stuff. I hadn''t learned that. I will at the [fire] academy, though.
"I think the worst thing you can do in a situation is panic. And panic is from not knowing something. Panic is lack of knowledge. I don''t want to be in that position again and not know what to do.
"At first I thought about it a lot. We all had to go to the hospital and get all our shots up to date. I had to get Hep A, Hep B, a blood scan. That water was disgusting.
"I thought about it. Some of my teachers are firefighters. They were like, ''Hey, that was a good job.'' One of the battalion chiefs at CDF was like, ''You have help, if you need to talk to someone or something.'' It is a dangerous job and people die. He was like, ''How are you feeling? It was a good thing you did.''
"People are sayin'' to me, ''You''re a hero.'' That makes me uncomfortable, you know? To me that''s just what you do. What if it was your mom in there? You don''t ask questions. That''s a human being in there.
"My friend said to me, ''No, do you know how many people drove by and didn''t stop?'' There were people watching--not a crowd, but a bunch. That''s when it started to dawn on me: Oh, yeah, maybe it''s just something that''s in my nature to do. It''s not in everybody''s nature because everybody''s made of different stuff. Like scientists. I could never ever spend all day in a lab, it would make me crazy. But look at what they do--they make medicines that cure people, make people''s lives better.
"I thought afterwards--you know, they didn''t give us her name or anything--and I thought at first maybe I should try to find out and go to the wake and just say, ''Hey, I tried ...'' but I think she knows that. Maybe it''s best not to get too personal anyway. You probably burn out faster that way. Who knows? I guess I''ll find out."