CHILLIWACK (NEWS 1130) — Dennis Saulnier says he was able to save himself and his two daughters from drowning due to good luck, quick-thinking, a history of high-adrenaline hobbies, and a little help from the show Mythbusters.
Saulnier and his two daughters, ages 2 and 4, were out for ice cream on the Saturday of the May long-weekend when their truck plunged into Cultus Lake after being forced off the road by what he later learned was a drunk driver.
“He swerved into my lane, almost clipping my front end so I swerved over toward the mountainside I hit the brakes, as soon as my front tire hit the gravel my back end spun free,” he recalls.
“We did a slow like counter-clockwise drift and as soon as I knew we were going into the lake everything kind of went slow motion, it’s kind of hard to explain.”
In a critical split-second, he remembered something he once saw about how to escape a car that’s underwater.
“It was the weirdest thing, Mythbusters kind of popped into my head,” he explains. “I knew that once a vehicle’s in water you can’t physically open the doors until it’s full of water so I knew I only had seconds.”
“I quickly undid my seatbelt, I spun around to undo the girls’ because I knew that if I didn’t get them undone nobody would know how to undo it and they would pretty much drown. I figured their best chance was to be free. My first plan was just to kind of hold my girls until the cab filled up.”
He notes he was lucky to get the girls unbuckled in mere moments, given that car seats have a way of confounding parents in the best of times.
“It was miraculous in itself,” he says.
“I told them to just be quiet. They were just crying at this moment, it was just shock,” he says, adding that water was rushing into the pick-up truck’s cab through the window seams and the dashboards.
Waist deep in water, and only able to see a sliver of daylight out the window he changed his plan.
“I quickly thought I’ll punch out the sunroof and let the girls out,” he says.
So he did.
He likens the onslaught of water that followed to being hit with 15 fire hoses. The doors and windows imploded.
“At that moment I started to panic because I couldn’t see my girls. I figured they went out the sunroof but I wasn’t sure,” he says.
He moved around the cab of the truck, grasping at surfaces and under seats to see if he could find either one of his daughters.
“Then I start realizing that I’m out of breath, they’re not in the cab,” he says.
“I’ve got a minute to save these girls so I decided to leave the cab and check the surface. I was starting to panic a bit, I was starting to black out a little bit. I didn’t know how deep I was, it was pretty murky down there.”
Saulnier says the lake water was “like green, dark, milk” and says his foot got snared in a window seam after he decided to swim to the surface.
When he did surface he worried he hadn’t searched the truck thoroughly enough, and had left one of his young daughters behind.
“I didn’t see any splashing or hear any sounds, so I panicked, took a quick breath, tried diving down,” he says, adding he hadn’t drawn enough breath to swim all the way down to the truck.
When he resurfaced he noticed a crowd forming on the shore, he could hear people shouting to him but couldn’t make out what they were saying.
He screamed at them to call 911.
“Then, I made the decision I’m going back down, I’m not coming up without at least one of them.”
‘I saw my little girl’s ponytail’
But then he saw something on the surface.
“I saw my little girl’s ponytail, ten feet in front of me just floating in the water,” he says.
When he made it to his two-year-old daughter he realized she was still breathing.
“She just latched onto me like the biggest clamp ever and just started screaming, ‘Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!'”
With his youngest in tow, he scanned his surroundings and saw what he thought was his four-year-old about 20 feet away.
“As I’m getting closer I see her head bob underwater I’m like, ‘She’s drowning, she’s going under.’ I just get to her and I grab her, and I just yank her out of the water.”
He says he was struggling to swim both girls to shore when, luckily, another man swam over to help.
“My eldest hadn’t made a sound yet until she got to shore, we kind of rolled her over, she puked up, coughed up a bit of water and started crying. At that moment I knew everything was good.”
The divers that retrieved his truck told him it was found 12 metres below the surface, and the police told him the man who ran him off the road has been arrested for impaired driving.
‘Everything lined up just perfectly’
In the days that followed, he was wracked with ‘what-ifs.’
Now, he’s just thankful.
He credits his ability to remain calm under pressure to his history of jumping dirtbikes, noting he’s never been afraid of heights but always had an aversion to deep water.
“That quick instinct of having to stay calm in a hairy situation, to relax, to try to make the best of it helped me so much. When I knew we were going in everything was totally calm, I was totally calm. I never had one worry of doubt until I couldn’t physically see or feel my girls,” he explains.
“I used all my angels that day. Everything lined up just perfectly, all the right flukes.”