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THE LAST WORD: What do you do if your vehicle plunges into a pond?

Kerry Hubartt

We don’t know all the details of the crash on New Year’s Eve in Mishawaka in which a minivan driven by a northern Indiana woman plunged into a retention pond, killing two of her three children. The crash is still under investigation.

All we know is that Mishawaka firefighters that afternoon pulled the woman and three children from the fully submerged SUV after it apparently missed a curve on an icy road and entered the pond near a busy strip mall in the city just east of South Bend.

But such tragedies often result in conversations among family and friends in which we speculate what we might do if we found ourselves in our vehicle about to sink in a body of water.

In this particular instance, Brooke Natalie Kleven of Granger, 31, and her 3-month-old daughter, Hendrix Kleven, were both in critical condition following the crash, while the woman’s 4-year-old old son, James Kleven, and her 2-year-old daughter, Natalie Kleven, died at a local hospital. The county coroner said both children drowned.

First responders pulled the woman and the two children who later died from the vehicle after it had been submerged in the water for several minutes, The Associated Press reported. The infant girl in critical condition could not be removed until the vehicle was pulled from the water.

A 2017 story in The New York Times quoted a 21-year veteran of the Indiana State Police Underwater Search and Recovery Team, who offered his own ideas on what steps to take.

His first advice was not to waste precious time trying to call for help on your cell phone.

“If you get on your phone and call your parents, or your sister, or 911,” said Robert May, “you will die.”

No one else will arrive in time to save you, he stated — you have to save yourself.

Detective May, a master trooper with the Indiana State Police, told the newspaper that you must act quickly in such a predicament. While minivans like the one in the Mishawaka tragedy might float for up to 10 minutes, the odds of survival are highest if you get out in the first 60 seconds.

“Escape while floating on the surface,” May said.

So, what do you do?

May says first unbuckle your seat belt, lower your window (the car is still floating at this time) and climb out. Get on the roof of the vehicle if possible. Then you call for help and you can also decide whether to stay put or swim to the shore.

But what if there are children in the vehicle as in the Mishawaka case? Then — after unbuckling yourself and opening your car window — take care of them first, May said. Unfasten their seat belts, pull them into the front and push them out the window, oldest ones first.

May said he has found electric car windows normally continue to work after impact with water. But, just in case, he recommends keeping a small glass-breaking tool on your key ring or perhaps hanging from the rear-view mirror.

May said you should not open the door because water will flood in and that will make the vehicle sink fast.

An article in the Anderson Herald-Bulletin, also in 2017, said May spent his own money to purchase special water rescue tools for his 700 fellow officers. It was a “resqme tool,” which has a spring-loaded piston capable of breaking most vehicle windows and a razor knife that can slice through seat belts.

May said the tool “was the best way to break a car window above and below the water line.”

Another suggestion in survival instructions is that since the front of the car is heaviest and will likely sink first, you should not try to escape through the windshield, which is designed to be more difficult to break than the other windows anyway. Instead, break the driver’s side window or a rear passenger window.

What if you have no tools or heavy objects to break the window? Use your feet, kicking at the edges rather than the center of the window.

And what if you’re not able to open a window before the car sinks? According to instructions in popularmechanics.com, you may still be able to escape through a door. Once the car fills with water, the pressure inside and outside the car equalizes, making it possible to push the door open.

The Times story reported submersions have one of the highest fatality rates of any type of single-motor-vehicle incidents — about 400 deaths a year in North America. It makes sense for us all to know ahead of time what to do in case of such an emergency. And a window-breaking tool would be a good thing to have with you.

Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.