First responders from Collingswood and Westmont saved the life of a man whose car had gone off the road at South Park Drive and into the Cooper River. He is in stable condition.
By Matt Skoufalos
Quick thinking from a pair of Collingswood police officers and a timely 9-1-1 call from a borough resident saved the life of a 37-year-old man whose car rolled into the Cooper River on Sunday morning.
Officers responded at 8 a.m. to a call from a neighbor in the 300 block of South Park Drive who saw the vehicle veer off the road and into the river.
The driver appeared to be “suffering from an unknown medical condition” that may have caused him to lose control of the car, Collingswood Police Chief Kevin Carey said in a statement.
Angelo Lother of Collingswood was the man who made the 9-1-1 call.
“I was sitting having my coffee with my dog, watching the river like I do every morning, all of a sudden, the car pulled in front of my house,” he said.
“And then I looked inside the car, and it looked like he started shaking. I thought, ‘Oh my god, he’s having a seizure.’
“I thought about running out and trying to help,” Lother said. “As soon as I thought that, he completely sped up with the car, and into the water he went. I saw every little second of it.”
“I heard my husband screaming into the phone,” said Jacqueline Lother. “All I could hear was ‘He’s in the water now!'”
‘We were all trying to get the car open’
Monica Wolfram and Shannon O’Donnell of Cherry Hill and Mari Kehoe of Voorhees were walking in the park when they heard the commotion. Wolfram and Kehoe, who both considered themselves experienced swimmers, knew they had to act.
“Mari right away was like, ‘We have to go in,” Wolfram said. “I thought, ‘If she’s going in, I’d better go in with her.'”
Wolfram said that she and Kehoe were banging on the window, shouting at the driver to roll down the window or open the door. He was able to crack it enough for Wolfram to get her arm through to unlock the door, but the pressure differential was too great for them to pull it open.
The first police officer to arrive was Collingswood Patrolman James Cavanaugh, who dove into the river immediately; his colleague, Patrolman Kristina Bowen “was shortly behind, and followed suit,” Carey said.
“We were all trying to get the car open,” Wolfram said. “Finally the door did open. I went under once to try to get the seatbelt off, but I couldn’t do it. [Cavanaugh] was able to do it, but by that time [the driver]was already underwater.”
The driver was pulled from his vehicle and was resuscitated by authorities onsite, Wolfram recalled. Carey said he was shuttled into a Westmont Fire Company ambulance and transported to Cooper Trauma Center, where he was last reported to be in stable condition.
The car was removed from the river and towed from the scene.
‘It’s not an easy rescue’
The Oaklyn and Collingswood Fire Departments also were on hand to assist with the rescue.
Although the department responds to incidents at the water’s edge fairly frequently, Sunday’s was one of the first in at least three years that required a driver to be pulled from a sinking car, Collingswood Fire Chief Keith Davis said.
“It’s not an easy rescue,” Davis said. “You worry about the car submerging, people getting tangled in the car or the seatbelt during the rescue; hazardous materials from leaking fluids.”
Carey put it succinctly: “If it weren’t for the quick actions of Officers Cavanaugh and Bowen, the outcome would have certainly been a lot different.”
Both Cavanaugh and Bowen are fairly recent additions to the Collingswood Police Department, which has been steadily rebuilding its ranks as budgets opened up in the past few years. Cavanaugh was sworn in last October, and Bowen in November 2013.
The Lothers are just grateful that they were able to see the whole incident unfold in front of them, as troubling as it was to behold.
“If my husband didn’t see that, nobody else would have seen it,” Jacqueline Lother said. “There was nobody else there. He was just in the right place at the right time.”
Angelo Lother can thank his morning routine for the assist.
“I’m glad I was standing there having my coffee,” he said. “I would expect that if I was in that situation somebody would do the same for me. I told my wife, ‘This was a divine intervention.’ I’m glad to be there.”