Puyallup residents Levi Waddell and Keith Dawson were on their way to a winter ski instructor job at Crytstal Mountain with their colleagues when they came upon a dire situation.
Washington State Patrol credits good Samaritans as a large reason why two occupants of a vehicle that left the road and tumbled into White River near Greenwater Friday only sustained minor injuries, but the rescuers apparently left the scene before they could be properly thanked.
They had good reason: they were late for work.
Waddell, Dawson, Ryan Walton and Jeff Barth are ski and/or snowboard instructors at Crystal Mountain this winter. Dawn Zeleznik, the office manager for Snowsports School, said she knew they were involved in the rescue because they had turned up to work late and consequently received some gentle ribbing by colleagues before being recognized for their efforts earlier that morning.
The men corroborate that Barth and Walton were the first two people who entered the water after a mass of brake lights illuminated eastbound traffic on State Route 410, shortly before 8 a.m.
Barth, of Preston, said he was five to six cars behind and saw the "plume of steam" rising from the river in the distance.
The vehicle, a 1998 Toyota 4Runner with four-wheel drive, was nose-first upside down in the water, with the headlights aimed at the road, he recalled.
"It was bad," said Walton, of Gig Harbor. "I was thinking we were going to be pulling out bodies."
Barth said he approached the front to see about the occupants and was able to speak to them and verify there were two people inside. State Patrol later reported they were a 48-year-old male driver and 19-year-old female passenger, both of Silverdale. Barth also noted that there was about a foot of space inside the vehicle between the floorboard and the water level, so the occupants had room to breathe.
"I was talking to them to let them know help was coming," he said. "If it were me in there, I'd want to hear a voice like that telling me I was going to be OK."
While Barth maintained contact, Walton said he began looking for a way to pry a door open to free them. The doors were jammed and while he was working, a third person (as yet unidentified by Patch) entered the water and was able to get the back driver's side door open and pull out the female occupant first.
Both were carried to the river's edge and assisted by others waiting with warm cars so they could dry off and warm up.
Waddell and Dawson were among those at the water's edge standing by to help bring the occupants to safety. "The people that day did a fantastic job," Waddell commended his colleagues.
Four-Wheel Drive No Guarantee
All four men, very familiar with State Route 410 leading up to Crystal, recalled the road was icy and slick that morning, which was why they were taking it slow.
State Patrol reports the driver of the vehicle had lost control on the ice as he tried to pass another vehicle. Technically, he did it in a passing zone, said Barth.
But four-wheel drive is no guarantee in conditions like that, he added.
"You see it [people passing] more frequently than you should," said Walton. Since most people still wind up parking next to each other in the parking lot at Crystal, "it's not worth it to save five minutes to get up there and the lifts might not even be open yet."
The accident took place just east of Federation Forest, Barth said, and in a section of road right before the speed limit reduces to 35 mph entering Greenwater. The road bends left and then you're right next to the river. "You never would have thought that would launch a car off the road," he said. Then again, the driver was also cited for speed too fast for the icy conditions with a penalty of $175.
Walton and Barth recounted that as they got to the scene, about a dozen people were already there standing, and staring.
Barth didn't fault the spectators for their inaction - movies give the impression the car might do something unexpected like explode in situations like that - but his background as a bike guide for Issaquah-based Bicycle Adventures, kicked in at the sight of people in trouble, he said.
"Somebody needed to take charge," he said.
And the adrenaline was flowing. "We didn't even break stride," Walton said.
When the occupants were safe, and apparently before first responders arrived, "Jeff and I looked at each other, shook hands and were like 'see you at work.'"
Only several minutes after he'd returned to his car did he realize he was freezing, Walton said.