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As Car Dangled From Bridge, Teacher Feared Child Had Been Thrown Out

The San Juan Capistrano teacher appears on the Today show to tell her story for the first time. Then the show reunites her with two of her rescuers.

Kelli Groves, the San Juan Capistrano teacher whose car dangled off a Santa Barbara bridge for hours in a January rescue that made headlines around the world, spoke for the first time publicly Tuesday on “Today.”

“I could not see either one of them,” Groves said of her two daughters, ages 10 and 10 weeks, who were also trapped in the borrowed BMW, hardly recognizable as it clung to a guardrail, more off than on the bridge.

Watch the video here.

Groves is a teacher at , where her daughter Sage also attends. She was on maternity leave after having Mylo. The threesome was headed to visit the mission at San Luis Obispo for Sage’s fourth-grade mission project.

That’s when suddenly, just south of Buellton, a driver of a big rig did not turn with the curvature of the road. Instead, he drove through the back of Groves’ car, and freefell to the creek 50 feet below. Driver Charles Allison Jr. died in the crash. Investigators later blamed him for the crash after finding methamphetamine in his system.

Read more about the Kelli Groves crash:

“I could reach my arm back, and I could feel Mylo’s head. And as I brought my hand back, I noticed she was bleeding pretty badly from her head. But I couldn't see her face. I could hear her crying a little bit. Sage is the one that I had no idea where she was in the car,” Groves said, according to a transcript provided by MSNBC

Groves yelled for Sage.

“I said, Sage, Sage, you’ve been in an accident,” she told Today.  “I couldn’t see where she had been in the car. I thought for a minute maybe she’d been thrown out.”

Then she saw it. A tuft of Sage’s hair. She desperately tried to reach her, her hand navigating the twisted path created by mangled metal.

“I started patting her head calling out to her. ‘Sage, Sage, answer me!’ And she wouldn't answer me, and she wasn't moving,” Groves said. “I had no idea what shape the rest of her body was in. All I could see was that little circle of her head.”

The story of the miracles that followed have become almost legendary. A tow truck driver who was driving a bit behind and had watched the accident unfold stopped to help. He eventually winched the car to his truck.

Firefighters from around the county were meeting nearby, instead of being long off. They were on the scene in minutes.

And most famously, a group of Navy Seabees were caught up in the ensuing traffic with the exact tool rescuers needed, a heavy-duty forklift that stabilized the car from a neighboring bridge about 10 feet away.

Throughout it all, one Santa Barbara County firefighter in particular,  Greg Knuckles, was her “rock,” Groves told interviewers.

“It was someone I could communicate with directly. As he would walk away, I would find myself saying, ‘Where's Greg? Where's Greg? He just -- he just reminded me of why I -- what I needed to do, and that was to save my girls,” she said.

Firefighters pulled them out one by one, first Mylo, who had one scratch, Sage, who is still recovering from her injuries, and Kelli, who is also still on the mend. Groves said she has never had a chance to thank her saviors in person.

That’s when the Today crew pulled a surprise. They brought in Knuckles and California Highway Patrol Sgt. Matt Mullen.

“Thank you. Thank you,” Groves said, overcome with emotion, tears welling and hugs abounding.

Asked what it’s like to see photos of the rescue, Groves said: “It's still surreal to me that we're sitting here, and that was us in that car. It was terror at first, and then it fades to just relief. Huge amount of relief and gratitude, and it's hard to watch, but at the same time, it really happened. It's what we're taking with our lives and moving forward.”

Janet Whitcomb May 08, 2012 at 07:41 PM
Years ago my parents and I made the same trek, not to Mission San Luis Obispo, but a bit further north to Mission San Miguel, so that I, too, might learn more about the mission I’d been assigned to study by my fourth grade teacher. Later I did attend Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo and used to drive that stretch of road on a regular basis. And yes, the thought frequently did cross my mind that a terrible accident—not necessarily of my own making—could occur and possibly go unnoticed for a long period of time. This story is truly amazing—as are all those involved—and I thank Patch not only for reminding us of it, but also for providing the link to Today show. I defy anyone watching that segment not to become, at the very least, teary-eyed!
Pam Sunderman May 09, 2012 at 03:23 AM
If you have had the pleasure of knowing Kelli you would appreciate this story even more! She is truly a wonderful, giving person.
Michele May 09, 2012 at 07:16 AM
A long while back I remember driving with my family and we seen a small truck dive right into the 1st post of the bridge. He was ejected and flew into the street. Ill never forget how scary it was. Kinda like watching a movie. We drive this part of the freeway daily, we see military on it weekly. Never have we seen them carry a crane EVER!!! This didnt happen in Santa Barbara, it happened near Buellton. Driving this daily im here to tell everyone the rescue had Gods hands ALL OVER IT! To have the Navy happen to be there WITH A CRANE ( as Ive said we drive it daily never ever have we seen them transport anything. The Army yes we see them weekly carvaning tanks and their crew) but never this. To have them on the road at that exact minute, on that day... Is and was the hand of Christ the almighty...never luck.
Penny Arévalo (Editor) May 09, 2012 at 07:27 AM
Yes, the story does identify the accident site as just south of Buellton. I went there personally in February. But we're so far south here in Orange County, that Santa Barbara is the nearest reference point for our readers. See this story http://sanjuancapistrano.patch.com/articles/the-untold-story-of-the-crash-that-made-headlines-around-the-world for all the details. Thanks for stopping by! :-)

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