How to escape from a car underwater


The Chesapeake Bay Bridge (Michael Lutzky/The Washington Post)

On Friday night, Morgan Lake lived through many drivers’ nightmare: She found herself plummeting about 27 feet off the edge of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge into the water below. And the 22-year-old student managed a feat that pilots and military personnel take hours of specialized training to perfect: She escaped from her sinking car, swam to safety and survived.

Ken Burton, president of Panama City, Fla.-based Stark Survival, has guided helicopter operators worldwide through his $2,295 underwater-egress class. Lake had no practice in the art of escaping from a vehicle, Burton said, but she got lucky.

“There are people who just have dumb luck,” he said. “God was sitting on their right shoulders, so they get out, even without the knowledge, and that is so fortunate.”

Burton, who was certified as an Air Force instructor, said he has trained corporate and government helicopter operators.

For those who might find themselves underwater in their cars, Burton offered this advice:

●Open the window as fast as possible — before you hit the water, if you can, or immediately afterward.

●Stay still, with your seat belt on, until the water in the car goes up to your chin. Then take several slow, deep breaths and hold one.

●Do not try to open the door until the water has stopped flooding into the car. Initially, the water outside will put pressure on the door of up to 600 pounds a square inch, meaning you won’t be able to open it from the inside. The pressure inside and outside the car should equalize about the time you start holding your breath.

●If you can’t open a door and you’re trying to break a window instead, aim for a side window, never the windshield. Windshields are several layers thicker.

●Don’t take off your seat belt until you have opened a door or window. Grip the steering wheel before you unbuckle. You’ll need something keeping you tethered so that you can pull yourself out of the car.

●Once you’re out of the vehicle, let your body take you to the surface. As Burton put it: “Don’t worry about going up or down. When you take all those deep breaths and hold it, it’s like you’re inflating a balloon.”

All of that, Burton said, should take about 30 seconds.

Julie Zauzmer is a local news reporter.
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