By Frank Elaridi and Sabina Ghebremedhin
A hero kayaker helped rescue a family of five from their sinking SUV when they swerved off the road and into a river near the Sierra Nevada community of Kyburz, about 75 miles northeast of Sacramento, Calif.
Mark Divittorio was kayaking down the river during the accident, and managed to get the three children, a 4-year-old girl and two 15-year-twin sisters, out of the SUV and take them to shore before returning to the car to find the driver with his head partially underwater and his wife helping to hold his head up for air.
“There was [a] moment of silence and then a crash into the river,” Divittorio said. “When I arrived the three girls that were sitting in [the] back had already unbuckled and climbed on top of the SUV which lay on its side in the river.”
He said the two older sisters got their 4-year-old sister out of the car. “They saved their sister and it was incredible what these girls did,” Divittorio told ABC News. He then got all of the girls to the shore before returning to the sinking SUV.
“The mom’s side of the car was submersed. She had managed to unbuckle and get her upper torso out of the sun roof. She was sitting upright and her thighs held her husband’s head above the water.”
Divittorio helped the wife hold her husband’s head above water and keep him conscious until the rescue teams arrived.
“I’m very relieved and happy to say that the entire family of five survived this intense accident,” he said. “The parents were very supportive of each other and told each other they loved each other. Mentally it was a huge help that the wife was there with him when the accident happened. He had a will to survive and he wanted to live.”
According to authorities, a fire truck was nearby responding to another incident and arrived three minutes after the accident, which is 12 minutes faster than their normal response time.
Firefighters could see a female’s head sticking out of the sun roof. Wearing life jackets and swift water helmets, they entered the river, where they saw Christian Lemler, 50, of Livermore, in the driver seat. They had to peel the roof of the SUV off using the Jaws of Life in order to get access to the Lemler.
Mike Pott, division chief of the El Dorado County Fire Protection District, said the family was lucky Divittorio was there.
“He was there in his dry suit and was able to initially assist the victims,” Pott said. “One of my captains carried the wife, about 8 ft. or so, to the shore and got her to her kids. Shortly after, the medical units arrived and were assigned to assist the girls and wife.”
Pott said that Divittorio stayed on the scene to help the rescue team by handing them tools and carrying the driver through moving water to the shore. At one point a captain took his life jacket off and put it under the driver’s head to keep it from sinking.
One of the twins and the 4-year-old were taken to the University of California Davis Center in Sacramento, with more serious injuries. The other three victims were taken to Marshall Hospital in Placerville, Calif.
Two of the victims – the mom and one twin sister – did not sustain severe injuries, and were not admitted to a hospital.
Several factors were in their favor, Pott said: A kayaker was there to provide care and aid, the passengers were wearing their seatbelts, and the river was not high and swiftly flowing as usual, due to the lack of rain fall and snow this spring.
According to California Highway Patrol Sgt. Mike Poore, who is the supervisor for the officers overseeing the investigation, the cause of the crash is still not determined.
“It’s still under investigation,” Poore said. “There were moderate to major injuries, but didn’t appear to be life-threatening. The roadway was wet, it had been raining, but we don’t know if that or fast driving were contributing factors or not.”