Real People Stories

Land of the Brave

UPDATED 11/15/2004 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/15/2004 at 01:00 AM EST

Two truckers rescue child from submerged car

Kim Deese was driving her queasy son Alex, 5, to the doctor on Feb. 11 when she pulled off U.S. 45, near the Alabama-Mississippi border, so the child could throw up. But as she tried to open the passenger door from the outside, her red Grand Am slid down an embankment into a culvert filled with water from recent rains. Alex scrambled out, but baby Rylee, 2, was trapped.

Moments later trucker David Robertson spotted a lone boy shivering by the roadside and pulled his 18-wheeler to a halt. His coworker Tony Busby pulled in behind him. "I heard hollering," recalls Robertson, 49. He ran toward the cries and saw Deese, 27, up to her neck in muddy water, screaming, "My baby's inside!" Robertson could barely make out the red of her sunken car. The granddad of eight jumped into the six feet of near-freezing water but couldn't see a thing. Minutes later Busby, 58, joined him. The pair finally found Rylee in her car seat—which had been turned upside down from the water pressure, leaving her face submerged. After desperate efforts to unbuckle her, Robertson pulled out a pocketknife and slashed the straps. Then he tried the CPR he'd learned 30 years ago. "On my first breath," he says, "I got a half gallon of water." The limp little girl moved slightly but didn't revive.

About a half hour later a local fire truck arrived and Rylee was airlifted to a hospital in Mobile, Ala. Doctors told Kim, a homemaker, and her husband, Brad, 29, who drives a logging truck, that their daughter's prognosis looked grim. But Rylee not only made it through the night, she surprised everyone with a full recovery. Today the only reminders of the accident are a few scars—and newfound friends Robertson and Busby, who call every couple of days and visit monthly. Says a grateful Brad: "This has instilled a sense of faith in humanity in me."

A young surfer saves a swimmer twice his size

It was his first time on a boogie board, and Andrew Sullivan was enjoying it—until a powerful ocean wave at Florida's Lake Worth inlet crashed into him, ripping the board's leash from his ankle and tearing off his flippers. Struggling to swim ashore, Sullivan, 33, was so overpowered by the current that March day that he found himself 1,000 feet from shore and fading fast: "I was pointing my head into the sky so I could breathe. My heart was beating fast. I thought that was truly it."

Then out of nowhere he spotted "this little surfer boy." That boy, Tyler Russell, then 11, had been out surfing for about an hour when he caught a long wave that took him away from the pack and right up to Sullivan. "The riptide was pulling him under," says Russell. Careful not to let Sullivan pull him under too, Russell, who weighs 90 lbs., unleashed his own surfboard, helped Sullivan, who is 203 lbs., climb atop it, and in about 20 minutes pulled him ashore. He stayed at Sullivan's side until he felt revived, two hours later. Scheduled to marry in April, Sullivan plans to name his first child Tyler if it's a boy. "Without him," says Russell, "I wouldn't be alive today."

'It was like getting caught in an avalanche'

March 23 started as another day's work at the Osage, Iowa, grain elevator for Jim Rolland and Ryan Jensen. But as they loaded railcars with soybeans, a 75-ft.-high bin clogged, so Rolland, 47, climbed up some stairs, crawled in through a side portal and onto the top of a 40-ft.-high pile of beans. "I thought I could fix it," he says, "and then get out."

No such luck. Suddenly the beans shifted, burying Rolland up to his chin. "It was like getting caught in an avalanche," says Rolland, who couldn't move anything but his toes and could barely breathe. "I could feel the beans settling tighter around me, like quicksand," he says. With the beans stored at 40°, he was also at risk of hypothermia.

Hearing his friend's cries, Jensen, 23, told a coworker to call 911, then scampered into the bin through the same hole, finding the terrified Rolland buried to his lips. "What can I do?" Jensen asked. "You could pray," Rolland said. "I am," said Jensen. He also took action. Lying flat on his belly to spread his weight and avoid sinking, he gingerly made his way to Rolland. "I tried to keep him calm," says Jensen. "I knew that meant keeping him alive."

While rescue workers gathered below, Jensen stayed with Rolland for nearly four hours, keeping his air passages clear by sweeping beans away with his hands. Finally, using a vacuum, rescuers sucked the beans from around Rolland and pulled him out with ropes and a stretcher, then airlifted him to a Rochester, Minn., hospital, where he was declared unhurt. "If Ryan hadn't jumped in," says Osage Volunteer Fire Department chief Kurt Angell, "we probably would've been recovering a body." Says Jensen: "I'd do it again tomorrow."

A pair of teens foil a kidnapping carjacker

Tucson teens Roy Madril Jr. and Chris Martinez were headed to the first day of their summer jobs when they stopped to gas up the 2000 Cadillac they'd borrowed from Martinez's mother. Then they heard a woman's desperate cry. "She was screaming, 'He has my kids! He's stealing my car!' " says Martinez, 17. "She went hysterical."

The driver, Inna (who asked not to be fully identified), 27, had been chatting beside her Honda with her mother while son Nicholas, 6, sat in the backseat next to his snoozing sister Julia, 2. Suddenly a carjacker came from nowhere, pushed the women aside, jumped behind the wheel and sped off. Says Inna: "It was the scariest moment of my life."

Madril and Martinez hopped in the Cadillac and gave chase, with Martinez behind the wheel, blaring the horn as Madril called 911 on his cell phone. (The car stopped briefly, Nicholas tumbled out, and the driver sped off.) "I was nervous, shaking, but I was thinking, 'What if my little sister got taken from my mother?' " says Martinez, who tailed the driver down a labyrinth of residential streets as Madril gave police a running commentary. When the officers finally caught up, they told the pair to back off as they drew guns and arrested the driver, Tom Vallancourt, 34—now serving 6½ years for kidnapping and auto theft. Martinez and Madril won recognition from Tucson's mayor and the Red Cross—and Inna's eternal gratitude. "If not for these boys," she says, "I would not have seen my children again."

She battled two pit bulls to save a boy

Seven-year-old Joshua Pia Perez was playing near his home in Aloha, Ore., on July 27 when he was suddenly charged by two pit bulls who had broken out of a nearby yard. Kathleen Imel, 51, who was driving by, screeched to a halt. "Stop, don't run!," she yelled. But it was too late. "They started biting me," says Joshua, now 8. "I was screaming for help." Leaping from her van, Imel, the mother of two grown sons, flung herself on top of Joshua as the larger dog, a 60-pounder named Butch, bit into the child's left ear. "I knew that either I did something or this little boy was lost," says Imel, assistant manager at a group home for people with developmental disabilities. Releasing Joshua, Butch chomped into Imel's left eyebrow instead. As the dog clamped its jaws around her elbow, a neighbor, drawn by her screams, pulled Joshua to safety. Then another neighbor beat off the dogs with an aluminum rod. (The dogs were euthanized, and the owners face trial in December on charges including second-degree assault.)

Imel was left with extensive injuries to her eye area. The attack almost severed Joshua's ear and left his uninsured parents with $14,000 in bills. But their biggest debt, says father Cesar Pia, 36, a pastor and housepainter, is to Imel. "She's an angel," he says.

Six students fend off their teacher's attacker

Conyers, Ga., high school teacher Debbie Brodie's Spanish students were just finishing the semester's final exam when the classroom door swung open with a bang last Dec. 17 and a strange man walked in. "I looked up and saw he had pulled a knife from his jacket," says Austin Hutchinson, 17, "and after that, everything just went crazy."

The intruder—Brodie's estranged husband, Ted Shultz, 52—lunged for the teacher, 47. "She yelled, 'What are you doing here?' " says Matthew Battaglia, 18. "She started screaming, 'Get out of here! Help! Help!' " While most of the 24 students ran out of the room—some dialing 911 on their cell phones to alert authorities—six stayed behind to confront the assailant, whose butcher knife had already pierced Brodie's left thigh and almost severed her left thumb. As Hutchinson and Scott Wigington, 18, pulled him away from the teacher, Nimesh Patel, 18, jumped on the intruder's back, knocking him to the floor. Andy Anderson, 18, helped hold him down, and then John Bailey, 17, threw his weight atop the pile, followed by Battaglia. Wigington grabbed Shultz's wrist and wrested the knife away, tossing it out the door. Soon two school officials arrived to apprehend Shultz (who pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and got 15 years in prison). "He intended to kill me," says Brodie, who remarried on Oct. 2. "In a way, my life belongs to the six of them."

THOMAS FIELDS-MEYER AND PAM LAMBERT. DARLA ATLAS IN STARKVILLE, MISS., KRISTIN HARMEL IN CONYERS, KATE KLISE IN NORWOOD, MO,, SIOBHAN MORRISSEY IN LAKE WORTH, KERRI SMITH IN TUCSON AND LYNDON STAMBLER IN LOS ANGELES

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