911 Call Prompts Dramatic Rescue on a Flooded Road

It was just a few feet that marked the border between Sandy Rawls' everyday routine and a desperate life-and-death call to 911.

On the last day of August last year, a lingering Hurricane Gaston was pelting central Virginia with 14 inches of rain, collapsing buildings and flooding roads.

Rawls, 41, was taking her usual route home from work at the Virginia Department of Transportation when she noticed water across the road.

"I couldn't see how far or how wide across the road it was," she told "Primetime" special correspondent Jay Schadler. But she was talking to her co-worker on her cell phone at the time and didn't give it much thought.

When the front part of her car drove into water, she said the tires lifted slightly, and she thought to back out. But then the car started rocking, Rawls said.

"Next thing I know my car starts going sideways. And it just floats. And I'm sitting there turning the steering wheel fighting the steering wheel to do whatever I could to get back on the road."

A Deadly Cage

She had no control. "All the electrical, everything died," Rawls said. Her car was swept about 100 yards off the road, and then it hit a fence.

Water was flowing into the car. She crawled into the back seat, with the thought of getting to the highest point inside the vehicle. "Try to get out the best you can," she remembered thinking. The doors did not work because the locks were electronic.

Her cell phone rang. It was a 911 operator. The co-worker to whom Rawls was talking had alerted emergency services. On the recordings of their conversation, Rawls is heard growing increasingly frantic. "I can't get the doors open!" she said.

The operator sent out a dispatch on the radio about a woman who had been washed off the road. There had been a lot of these calls due to the storm that day, but Deputy Lt. Dave Stone of the Chesterfield County Police Department soon realized Rawls' situation was far from routine.

Slowly Rising Water

Meanwhile, the danger was increasing for Rawls. Even though she had moved to the backseat, the water now reached her waist. A tape of her 911 call recorded her panicked voice telling the operator, "I'm only 4-foot-10!"

"The water's getting higher! It's going over my head! Got to get out of here," she said.

The water was rising so fast that Rawls had to resort to breathing from an air pocket while pressed against the back window. The operator assured her that help was on the way, and she was reassured when she started to see red lights in the distance.

Stone had arrived at the scene. But with the water still rising and visibility poor, he had trouble finding Rawls' car. Rawls told the operator, "I'm 200 yards off the road. Let them know I'm off the road. They can't see me!"

And then the operator told Stone they had lost touch with Rawls. "Sounded grim to us," he said.

But it turned out Rawls had gotten so frustrated that she had thrown her phone at the back window and damaged it.

A Lifesaving Light

Rawls reached into her backpack and fished out a trinket -- a souvenir laser light she'd been given at an auto show. She began flashing it.

Stone says he didn't see it, but someone else helping with the search effort insisted he saw a light flash. But to reach the car would require Stone to risk his life by entering a rushing river.

Both Stone and Rawls were both staring death in the face at the same moment.

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