Sun-Sentinel

Miramar rescue workers honored for efforts to save crash victims

By Nicole T. Lesson
Staff Writer
Posted April 25 2003

Miramar ∑ It took 13 minutes for the city's Fire-Rescue divers to find five women whose car had submerged 15 feet into a canal off Florida's Turnpike.

The 911 call came at 3:23 p.m. April 1, and Florida Highway Patrol was first to the scene, just south of the Miami-Dade County line near Interstate 75.

Seven minutes later, Miramar Fire-Rescue arrived and its divers were sent into the water as Miami-Dade Fire-Rescue also showed up. With precision, will and teamwork, and knowledge of the car's location, they brought up the women in a short amount of time.

Still, the accident ended in tragedy. One woman died at the scene; four others were taken to area hospitals where they later died.

"The firefighters felt they didn't deserve to be recognized since no one survived, but everyone else felt they did because of their tireless efforts," Miramar Fire-Rescue spokeswoman Gina Hudson said. "These families are grieving their losses, but it's not because of actions taken by these departments. They worked well together using good communication and teamwork."

It was the biggest casualty scene in Miramar Fire-Rescue's history, Hudson said.

For their efforts, Hudson, six city divers and 14 other rescue workers were recognized by Fire Chief Jim Hunt during the April 15 City Commission meeting.

More than 40 emergency personnel from Miramar, Miami-Dade, FHP, and Pembroke Pines on standby, were at the scene, along with 10 rescue vehicles and three helicopters waiting to transport the women. An FHP officer, who first went in trying to reach victims, was able to give divers directions to reaching the vehicle.

"It was a great cooperative effort between us and Miami-Dade," said Miramar Capt. Frank Vrklan, who was the second diver in the water.

He and Miramar firefighter/paramedic Kevin Neugent immediately jumped into the canal where the vehicle and the victims were last seen after colliding with another car.

"The vehicle was upside down and my feet hit it first," Neugent recalled. "The car was halfway in the muck."

With zero visibility, Neugent felt his way to the first victim in the front passenger seat. He cut the seat belt and had her out of the water within 50 seconds.

"The FHP officer put us where we needed to be," he said. "Then I went back down to the driver's side."

At 2 1/2 minutes, he had the second victim out.

"I tried to breathe and stay calm," said Neugent, who had never extricated people from a submerged vehicle. "I would feel for the door. The pressure was equalized since the water totally filled up the car."

Meanwhile, city firefighter/paramedic Alex Perez, rescue Lt. Alex Vazquez and driver engineer Timothy Hester also were in the canal trying to locate victims, while Capt. Valentin Srbovan, in water up to his knees, monitored the dive efforts.

Neugent dived again and this time broke out the back window with a crash axe to rescue his third person. Perez swam to the rear passenger side and cut the seat belt to free another woman.

"I had the flashlight right at my face, through the amber glow you could see only a few inches in front of you," Perez said. "There was so much dirt in the water ... It was like swimming through mud."

He brought up the fourth person, then went back for the last woman.

Rescue workers from both Miramar and Miami-Dade were standing on shore ready to take the victims to one of four stations ready for emergency treatment.

"By the time our divers got there, Miramar divers had already been deployed so we went to the patient treatment sector," said Eugene Germain Jr., spokesman for Miami-Dade Fire-Rescue. "Upon the extrication of the victims from the vehicle, we would administer all necessary lifesaving measures. It was a joint venture."

But none of the five victims was breathing when pulled out of the water, Hudson said. Mercedes Godinez, 53, was pronounced dead at the scene, while rescuers tried to revive driver Elda Lorenzo, 71; Clara Palou, 54; Leonor Rosales, 68; and Lucia Romero, 55.

Romero was the sole survivor of the accident and clung to life for three days after sustaining severe brain damage.

The five women were on their way home from Magnivision in the Miramar Park of Commerce, when a Honda Civic hit their Ford Escort wagon causing it to travel across 100 feet of grass before landing upside down in the canal, according to police.

Authorities are still investigating whether the Honda driver, Flavia Abarca, 22, of Pompano Beach was using her cell phone at the time of the accident.

Other members of the Miramar Fire-Rescue Department honored at the commission meeting were: Division Chief Dennis Matty; Division Capt. Bill Huff; Battalion Chief Scott Pratt; Battalion Capt. Peter "Rocky" Gurdak; Logistics Capt. Scott Rector; Rescue Lt. Dominic Granteed; driver engineers Nathan Babrove and Lino Marcos; and firefighter/paramedics Barbara Calderbank, Paul Ford, Trevor Gayle, Marian Meyers, Fermin Ortea and Rodolfo Valdes.

Nicole T. Lesson can be reached at nlesson@sun-sentinel.com or 954-385-7920.