Video: Saving kids was ‘surreal’

  1. Closed captioning of: Saving kids was ‘surreal’

    >>> we begin with a horrible accident in utah that could have been a new year's tragedy, if it weren't for the kindness of strangers. first janet shamlian has more.

    >> reporter: this was a terrible accident on new year's eve in utah that could have easily ended in the death of three small children had it not been for a small team of strangers. together they literally waded into danger and in the process putting their own lives at risk . at the time even they thought these kids might not make it yet they fought for those children's lives and they won. the icy logan river on new year's eve was well on its way to becoming a frigid liquid tomb to three young children after the car they were riding in skidded off the road, slid ten feet down an embankment and landed upside down in the bitterly cold water .

    >> the first thought was, so this is how it ends, which is kind of, you know, not a good thought. this very easily could have been, you know, a funeral for four of us.

    >> reporter: roger anderson was able to free himself but the children, his 4-year-old son baylor, 9-year-old daughter mia and her friend 9-year-old kenya wildman were trapped inside. it was a moment and seconds the difference between life and death .

    >> i was gone in a second. i was completely off the road and then sliding down the embankment, within a second the entire cabin of the vehicle was full of water.

    >> reporter: and just as quickly, anderson says, help appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.

    >> these people that were there at the scene, without hesitation, they just did what they had to do. and that for our family, made all the difference.

    >> reporter: his own two children were by now floating lifeless in the river water that was filling the car, little baylor still strapped into his child seat . kenya had found an air pocket but she couldn't get out of her seat belt . the men tried opening the car windows or another door but the water was rising and nothing would move. then one of them, chris willden, pulled out his handgun and shot out a window. the group of strangers turned rescuers pulled the kids from the car, passing them up the icy riverbank where others performed life-saving cpr. almost against the odds, all three children would live to see the new year.

    >> it was greater than just the physical hands and the hearts, it was something more divine that went on that day.

    >> reporter: two families and three children who are doing just fine today, thanks to a random act of kindness , and courage.

    >> i love them. i will be forever grateful. they are my heroes in every sense of the word. really. they are the reason i have my children.

    >> reporter: the children are doing great. they were released from the hospital early monday. they spent the rest of the day enjoying what was their last day of holiday vacation , in fact one family member said they are more traumatized by the fact they have to go back to school today than anything that happened on the river on new year's eve. ann, back to you.

    >> janet shamlian , thank you. chris and bruce willden, two of the rescuers joining us, good morning to you.

    >> good morning.

    >> good morning.

    >> chris , you were first on the scene. can you explain how not one, not four, not six but at least eight people voluntarily ran down that embankment to help rescue these kids, knowing the risks.

    >> i honestly i can't say why people did what they did. i just know that there were kids in harm's way and a lot of volunteers came out of the woodwork to help get the tids out of the river.

    >> the clock was ticking. as a former police officer you knew what to do. how did you know shooting the bullet to break it open was not going to hurt the kids?

    >> i had actually fired handguns underwater previous. i had a pretty good idea on the trajectory, what the bullet would do from that caliber. i pulled out my handgun, pushed the firearm as far down in the riverbed, when it stopped i knew i was at the top where the door frame and window joined, straight up and down. if the bullet went through the window it would travel two, three inches before it lodged up inside the roof of the vehicle.

    >> bruce your son also had the knife needed to break open the seat belts . how proud were you watching your son in action?

    >> chris has always been one who has been prepared, like he always says, he never leaves the house, but what he doesn't have, these three items with him, a firearm, and a knife and a portable flashlight, portable, in his pocket.

    >> you saw two of the children brought out lifeless, and this could have gone so much a different way. so how was it hard not to be emotional when you realized that those two children would survive?

    >> i think at first when i noticed the little girl honestly i thought she was a doll floating upside down. after that, real ooilszed there's other lives in there, you press on, get as many people out as you can.

    >> right, but as i understand it, you were being treated for some cuts on your arms when you could hear people screaming because they were so relieved that the kids were fine. were you emotional at that point?

    >> i wasn't emotional until we got home. i think finally after the adrenalin dropped, that's when reality kind of set in.

    >> when you add it all up, that a bunch of good samaritans, including a former police officer , including an expert in cpr, would all arrive at the same time, how stunning is that for you, bruce , to see how this all unfolded?

    >> until things started to wind down, you just, we didn't realize how many people were there and how many people were involved, the people taking the children up onto the bank and wrapping them, bundling them in blankets and coats, and placing them in warm vehicles. it was just a surreal situation. we're just very grateful it turned out the way it did.

    >> and the parents have called you and the others heroes. when you, how do you think you will look back on this experience as a measure of saving these children as a measure of your lives?

    >> i'm just glad the kids are okay. how is it going to affect our lives down the road? i don't know. i was happy to receive a phone call from one of the parents yesterday, just very grateful we managed to get one of his children out of the vehicle, so, i'm just glad that everybody's okay and the kids were released yesterday.

    >> well we're really glad for people like you, chris and bruce willden, thank you so much for what you've done and also for joining us this morning and our best

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/3/2012 11:25:44 AM ET 2012-01-03T16:25:44

Chris Willden was driving along a winding canyon road in Utah on Saturday when he spotted something in the riverbank: an overturned car, submerged in the icy water, and something else.

"At first when I noticed the little girl, honestly, I thought she was a doll floating upside-down," Willden told NBC's TODAY Show. "After that, I realized there's other lives in there; you need to just press on, get as many lives as you can."

So Willden, a former police officer, sprung into action. Thanks to him and a handful of other strangers-turned-rescuers, the driver and three children who were inside the car were saved from Utah's frigid Logan River — which had already knocked two of the kids unconscious.

Roger Andersen, 46, the driver of the car, had been able to free himself, but 9-year-old daughter Mia, 4-year-old son Baylor, and their 9-year-old friend Kenya Wildman were trapped.

"The first thought was, 'So this is it how it ends,'" Andersen said while choking back tears Monday at a news conference in Logan, about 80 miles north of Salt Lake City. "This could very easily have been a funeral for four of us ... Without hesitation, they just did what they had to do ... And that ... for our family, made all the difference."

The four were on their way to a ski resort Saturday when the New Year's Eve accident happened, according to the Herald Journal News, which first reported the story.

Image: A car in the Logan River in Utah
Chris Wilden  /  AP
A photo provided by Chris Willden shows a car in the Logan River in Utah Saturday, after it was flipped upright by rescuers who saved three children trapped inside.

The road didn't appear icy, at first, but as they made their way up the canyon, it got slicker so he slowed. Just one tap on the brakes was all it took.

"In a second, I was completely off the road and sliding down the embankment," Andersen said. "Within a second, the entire cabin of the vehicle was full of water."

He struggled to free the children from their seatbelts, but couldn't get them loose.

Drastic measures: A handgun rescue
Chris Willden, who was driving by with his father at that very moment, pulled over. He rushed into the river and surveyed the scene inside the vehicle. Andersen had gotten out of his car, but the kids were all trapped. Andersen's children were by now floating unconscious in the river water that was filling the car, four-year-old Baylor still strapped into his child seat, reported TODAY.  Nine-year-old Kenya had found an air pocket but could not free herself from her seat belt.

That's when Willden's police officer training — along with his handgun and knife — became crucial.

Image: Chris Wilden
AP
Chris Willden, in a June 2006 photo he provided, helped save three children trapped in a car upside down in a freezing river.

"Chris has always been one who has been prepared," Bruce Willden told TODAY of his son. "He never leaves the house when he doesn't have with these three items with him: A firearm, and a knife, and a portable flashlight."

The men tried to pry open the car doors and windows with no luck. Chris knew what he had to do: Using his handgun, he shot the window, and then used his knife to saw through the seatbelts.

When he turned around, he saw about 7 others had pulled over on the side of the road, ready to assist with the rescue, he said.

"I honestly can't say why people did what they did. I just know that there were kids in harm's way, and a lot of volunteers came out of the woodwork to help get the kids out of the river," he said.

The rescuers pulled the children one-by-one from the car and passed them up the river bank to others, where some performed CPR on two of them — Andersen's children.

They all loaded up into a friend's SUV and sped down the mountain for help, and were met about halfway by paramedics, Andersen said.

An inspiring story
His two children were flown to a hospital in Salt Lake City, treated for hypothermia and released on Monday. The family friend also was treated and released.

"In a matter of a couple of days, now Baylor is running around just like nothing ever happened to him, and Mia is fine and Kenya is also fine," he said. "It's a story to me that is inspiring in many ways."

Chris Willden told TODAY his experience in the police force gave him the confidence to fire a weapon without harming the children.

"I had actually fired handguns underwater. I had a pretty good idea on the trajectory, what the bullet would do from that caliber," he said.

Andersen told his rescuers that they inspired him to learn more about how to help others.

"I need to do more so I can be at that level where I can step in and help people," Andersen said.

Kenya's father, Dennis Wildman, called it "a great story about the human spirit and our desire to help others."

He said the bystanders who didn't hesitate to help "literally brought our children home to us."

"We just want to say thank you," he said.

Roger Andersen's wife, Mindy, fought to keep from crying Monday as she thanked the bystanders for saving the children's lives.

"Hero," she said, "is not even big enough for what they did."

The Associated Press and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

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