Central Valley

Many submerged cars empty

Divers with the Fresno Fire Department rush to canals about twice a month to rescue someone trapped in a submerged car.

Often it turns out that the car is empty -- in many cases it's a stolen vehicle that has been ditched in swift-moving waters in a bid to cover up the crime.

But Fire Captain Charles Leach, of the department's Urban Search and Rescue Station, says every call has to be treated as if it's a life-or-death situation until divers can confirm the car is empty.

The Central San Joaquin Valley is crisscrossed by canals without guard rails, making it easy for an inattentive or intoxicated driver to drive up the bank and plunge into the icy water. Leach said that often the driver or passengers are not using seat belts and are tossed around and knocked unconscious by the time the vehicle hits the water, making survival much less likely.

Someone who doesn't panic in such a situation has a much better chance, Leach says: Opening a window so that water pressure inside and outside the vehicle are equalized will allow a door to be opened so the occupant can escape. If the occupant is in a car with electric windows, then a window might have to be broken, something that can be done much more easily if the driver had the foresight to pack a small rescue hammer in the glove box. And yes, some people do plan for such emergencies and are collected enough to use it in such a situation, Leach says.