BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4) – On Sept. 12 before the sun came up, it was raining hard and Dillon Road near Highway 287 in Boulder County washed out. Chase French was driving to work when his truck fell into the gap in the road.
“I couldn’t stop in time,” French told CBS4.
The truck was wedged between the road and the rushing river. French was still strapped into his seat belt and his airbags hadn’t deployed. He was okay.
“I get on 911 … and I’m about to tell them where it’s at and all of a sudden my cab just explodes,” French remembered.
The windows smashed, the air bags deployed, and the cab was crushed. French’s truck was hit by a white truck that also flew into the river.
“I ended up crawling through a gap between my roof panel and my door that just appeared … up onto the roof and then across the top of my truck and up on the road,” French said.
On the road French saw an extraordinary scene — three cars in a rushing river.
“That’s the worst part of it, getting up to the top and hearing the pounding on the windows from the other vehicles in the water knowing other people are trying to get out,” French remembered.
French walked down the road to get help, despite fractures to his neck and back.
PHOTO GALLERY: Images Of The Dramatic Rescue Efforts
“What was your response when you arrived at the scene and saw this?” CBS4’s Karen Leigh asks two of the firefighters from North Metro Fire & Rescue who made two daring rescues that day.
“We knew that we had one live victim right away,” said Rob Williams, a lieutenant with North Metro Fire & Rescue.
Rescuers got into the water as fast as possible. Crews on either side of the bank guided a boat to get it into position near the vehicle with the person who was definitely alive inside. Williams was able to break a window and the driver came out of it.
“It’s going to weight our boat differently, which is … the current is going to grab our boat differently,” Williams explained while viewing video from the rescue.
The boat almost capsized. The rescuers struggled to get control. They fought the rushing current, trying to get to shore safely. It was raining and the situation was so unstable that the right bank gave way.
“Ironically it kind of pushes us over … kind of creates a little eddy water that pushes us over to the right,” Williams said.
The second driver was safe. Then the rescuers focused on the car that had been upside down in the water for more than an hour.
“We feared the worst,” Williams said.
Roy Ortiz was in that car and he was fighting for his life.
“I just prayed to God and I found a hole. I found a hole I could get my head outside and breathe,” Ortiz said in a news conference the day after the rescue.
Ortiz has a wife, two little girls, two boys and a lot to live for.
“So I have to wait. I have to pray. I have to sing to God because I want to survive,” Ortiz said.
Rob Williams crawled up on the bottom of the car to attach tow cables that would tip the car out of the water.
“As I crawled up here I started to hear a really quiet tapping on the bottom of the vehicle, which we didn’t know anyone was alive in there before,” Williams described as he watched the video of the rescue.
“When they put the chains … when they hook it up on my car, I feel that and I start yelling again and knocking on the car so they know I’m still alive,” Ortiz described.
“Does that change the pace?” Leigh asked of the rescue firefighters.
“So it definitely did with Rob, amped it up from more of an investigative mode to a rescue mode,” said John Cook, an engineer with North Metro Fire & Rescue.
“We know time is of the essence, but right here as he started to crawl out, I told him to zip his life jacket up which kind of in retrospect, it actually got his head back in the vehicle right as it goes over … right now,” Williams described as he watched the video.
“So is he under water at this point?” Leigh asked.
“I imagine so … yeah … he’s probably under water and there’s current flowing into the vehicle now,” Williams responded.
“How lucky is Mr. Ortiz to be alive?” Leigh asked.
“He’s incredibly lucky. I’m sure someone told him to buy a lottery ticket,” Williams responded.
All three drivers were lucky to survive a crash like this.
“It was pretty extraordinary … really,” Williams said.
“I feel fortunate,” French said.
“I give thanks to God for the angels that he sent to me,” Ortiz said.
Chase French has two fractures in his neck and three compression fractures in his back. He’ll be in a neck and back brace for 6 to 12 weeks, but doctors are expecting a full recovery.
– Written for CBSDenver.com by CBS4 Special Project Producer Libby Smith
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