Madison County emergency responders called heroes after dramatic rescue

News-DemocratAugust 16, 2013 

A pair of Madison County Sheriff's Department deputies, an off-duty Glen Carbon firefighter and volunteers from the Mitchell Fire Department are being hailed as heroes after saving a man whose car became submerged Thursday after crashing into a creek.

According to the sheriff's department's report, at about 5:20 p.m. Thursday deputy Timothy Lawrence answered a call about a car accident at Country Club and Bluff roads in Edwardsville.

When Lawrence arrived, he found the victim's 2004 Volkswagen Passat was partially submerged in a creek. Glen Carbon firefighter Steven Slemer was driving home from his job at the Phillips 66 Wood River Refinery in Roxana when he arrived at the scene.

"I got off from my shift and went on my normal ride home when I noticed a vehicle was stopped and some people standing around," Slemer said. "I stopped and walked over there and they said a vehicle was down in the ditch."

Slemer found the driver, 62-year-old Paul E. Wanda of Glen Carbon, was initially conscious. But his head was submerged in the water for as long as two minutes and he lost consciousness. Slemer broke out a window in Wanda's car and reached inside to keep his head above water. But rescuers could find no sign of breathing or a pulse.

In order to keep Wanda's head above water, Lawrence and three witnesses lifted the driver's side of the Passat while Slemer cut Wanda out of his seat belt with a knife.

"They threw me a knife and I went down to cut the seat belt straps," Slemer said. "Some guys came down helped he to lifted the vehicle a little bit more and Madison County Sheriff's Department came and cut another seat belt strap. I was able to help keep his face out of the water."

But rescuers discovered that, even after he was freed from his belt that they couldn't get Wanda out of the car because his legs were stuck beneath the dash. As they tried to pull him free, Wanda regained consciousness and began to scream.

"All of the sudden, he raised his arm and flinched and then flinched again and started to breathe," Slemer said. "He was then breathing on his own and then he came to and was screaming and hollering. It was a beautiful sound."

Firefighters from Mitchell and Deputy Dennis Laboray arrived as Lawrence and Slemer calmed Wanda. They were able to use an inflatable jack to prop up the vehicle and keep Wanda's head out of the water while rescuers continued to work to get Wanda out of the car.

Lawrence and the Mitchell firefighters were able to cut the rear driver's side door from the car and pulled Wanda out through the opening.

Madison County Sheriff's Department Lt. Gary Burns called the rescuers' actions "heroic" and suggested to his supervisors that they deserve to be honored.

"I think that it would be appropriate to recognize these two (Lawrence and Laboray) for their efforts," Burns, C Platoon Watch Commander at the sheriff's Department, wrote in an email to Capt. Brad Wells, Capt. Will Dimitroff and Sheriff Bob Hertz. "I believe that they saved the driver's life."

When he was freed from the car, Wanda said he wasn't in pain and felt all right. But he was transported to St. Louis University Hospital for a precautionary medical evaluation. Wanda's family told the sheriff's department he was admitted to the hospital and was in stable condition.

Dimitroff said the deputies will get a letter of commendation from Hertz, an honor that happens about five to 10 times a year, sometimes less.

"Everyone I have ever worked with this is prepared to do this every day," Dimitroff said of Madison County Sheriff's Department employees. "Sometimes you're in the right place at the right time and other times you're not so fortunate. But I'm happy that these officer's fine work resulted in this individual appearing to be OK. If the right people weren't there in time to help this is a situation that might have turned out completely differently."

Slemer said he was glad to be at the right place at the right time.

"It was quite an experience."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at or call 239-2626. Reporter Will Buss contributed information for this article.

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