Seat Belts Key to Survival in Bridge Collapse

Buckling up and staying calm are crucial to escaping a sinking car, experts say.

ByABC News
August 2, 2007, 4:27 PM

Aug. 3, 2007 — -- Plunging 60 feet off a bridge in a car sounds like a sure death sentence, but survival experts say people can and do walk away from such a calamity, for a simple reason: They were wearing their seat belts.

"The people who got out without a scratch absolutely had their seat belts on," says Brian Brawdy, survival expert and a former New York City police officer. "If you're knocked unconscious because you weren't wearing your seat belt, you won't be swimming to the surface."

Kimberly Brown, who survived the bridge collapse, told "Good Morning America's" Robin Roberts that had she not been wearing her seat belt, she was certain she would have gone through her car's windshield.

With four confirmed fatalities, Minneapolis authorities say they expect the death toll to rise as vehicles' that fell more than 60 feet into the Mississippi River are recovered.

Chances of surviving for those still submerged in the river now almost 24 hours later are remote, experts say. The combination of the impact and the speed at which cars sink give passengers mere minutes to avoid suffocation.

"[Drivers] would have three to five minutes, depending on how much of the water is rushing in and then given the size of the car," says Brawdy.

While many people may assume that unbuckling a seat belt and attempting to escape is the first thing to do in a sinking car, experts say otherwise.

"You want to make sure the impact is over before you take off your seat belt," says Brawdy, who warns that drivers and passengers should be certain no other car or foreign object is heading toward their vehicle.

In addition to remaining buckled up, here's some other tips to maximize your chances of escaping from a sinking car.

The weight of the engine will make the car nosedive into the water, and with water quickly surrounding the vehicle, passengers must allow the pressure to equalize before they waste their energy trying to open the doors or windows.

"You have to wait for some of the water to get in the car to equalize the pressure," says Brawdy. "You won't be able to open the door, and as counterintuitive as it sounds, you've got to let some water come in."