The high winds, rain and icy roads that beset travelers here last week produced many a passing kindness from motorists, but from Gary Zieses they summoned the courage to save three lives.
Last Thursday night, Zieses was on on his way home from his job with a Vienna engineering firm, when the car in front of him on Old Courthouse Road slipped off the glazed road and into the creek and the bottom of the hill.
Zieses jumped out of his car to see what he could do and confronted a scene that had changed wildly with the weather. The creek, normally a mere trickle at the bottom of the hill, was swollen with rain and moving swiftly with the wind. The car had entirely disappeared.
Suddenly, Zieses said, "four tires bobbed to the surface." The car, a brown compact, had overturned in what was about six feet of icy water. "I was terrified," Zieses said. "I looked around and there was nobody else around. I felt completely helpless."
The water was moving too swiftly, the 28-year-old former lifeguard said, to wade to the car from the creek bank, so Zieses jumped onto the underside of the car and started looking for a door handle. Ever since the tires had first appeared above the water Zieses had heard the sounds of fists beating, of people trying to get out. "Then the commotion stopped," Zieses said. "My heart was racing. I wasn't sure anyone was still alive."
From his vantage point on top of the car, Zieses found a door handle and pulled it. A young man fell out, gasping for breath, and told him there were two other people inside. Zieses "found an arm" connected, it turned out, to a young woman he pulled to safety on top of the car. Another young man was also pulled out by Zieses and the first occupant of the car.
By then, several other persons had stopped their cars to see what had happened, Zieses said, and soon, the three very wet, very cold former occupants of the car were getting warm in someone's auto. Zieses waited for a while for an ambulance or police car or tow truck, but nothing came and he went home to get warm himself.
The next day, Zieses said, he went back to the creek on his lunch hour and "the whole scene looked surreal." The sun was shining, the wind had died, the creek was small and placid. It began to seem, said Zieses, "as if the whole thing was a dream."
Zieses called the police to give them his account of the accident and to find out if the three people, whose names he didn't know were safe. The police wouldn't tell him much, he said, and now he "feels sort of empty inside." It is a matter, he said, "of just knowing that they're all right, of what happened to them. Your mind sort of needs that completness and it isn't there."
Zieses has had one nightmare, since the wreck, a dream in which the feeling of helplessness, when he was standing at the water's edge and there was no else and he didn't know what to do, has come back in his dreams.
For the most part, the encounter in the cold night has become "just something that happened. You have a choice," Zieses said. "You can stand there or you can do something about it. There really isn't much of a choice."