EDITOR’S NOTE: The dramatic rescue of teacher Kelli Groves and her two daughters as their car has drawn an outpouring of love and concern from local residents. Patch recently went to Buellton and sat down with one of Groves’ rescuers – and talked with others by phone. It turns out, despite all the media coverage, some of the story has yet to be told.
As tow-truck driver Brian Gomez headed back to Santa Maria from a job in Santa Barbara on Jan. 12, he approached the bridge over Nojoqui Creek and saw what seemed like a movie scene: An 18-wheeler in the slow lane didn't follow the curve in the road; instead it crushed the BMW beside it, then went over the edge “like a snake going into a hole.”
Next came an explosion 50 feet below. It sounded like a bomb, he said.
Gomez slowed his flatbed truck so he wouldn’t get caught in the aftermath and flipped on every hazard light he had. He called 911 and told dispatchers there wouldn’t be any survivors.
“There was lots of dust and smoke everywhere, pieces of truck everywhere,” Gomez recalled.
Walking out on the bridge to survey the scene, the only reason he knew that the car hanging halfway over the guardrail was a BMW was because he saw it before the accident. Now it was completely unrecognizable.
“It didn’t look like anything, just a bundle of metal,” Gomez said.
Approaching the carnage, Gomez’s opinion didn't change: no survivors.
“I thought there was nothing I could do,” he said.
Until he heard San Juan Capistrano resident and teacher Kelli Groves screaming for help. Gomez called 911 again to report there were survivors and to get ambulances right away.
“Hurry, just hurry.”
He rushed as close as he could to Groves. But the driver’s side was suspended in midair. And there was no way to get Groves or her two daughters, 10-year-old Sage or 10-week-old Mylo, out.
“Get us out of here,” she told him. “My babies are in here. My kids are my life.”
He tried to reassure her help was on the way. It would be OK.
In the creek below, they could hear the big-rig's tires popping in the flames.
When the first calls came in, CHP Sgt. Donald Clotworthy, the on-duty supervisor that day, was in the Buellton station several miles away. He could see the smoke from his office.
Officers got to the scene quickly. Clotworthy said it did not look like a survivable crash.
“No car is designed for impact with an 18-wheeler,” he said. “We were very surprised that anyone was alive in the vehicle. … We were in awe that the car didn’t follow the truck over the bridge. There’s no’s question there was luck or fate or something going on here.”
Santa Barbara County firefighters from Buellton were not far behind. But a more specialized crew was only minutes away in Solvang. There, a group of experienced fire captains from around the county had gathered to become certified safety officers for incidents not unlike this one.
Six of them jumped in their engines and arrived far more quickly than they would have been able to normally, said County Fire Battalion Chief Woody Enos. He was one of them.
Their efforts were split tending to the burning truck in the creek – investigators would later blame the crash on – and aiding the rescue above.
Enos said Kelli could feel the heat from the flames below.
“The truck was burning literally right below her, and her feet were hanging outside of the car,” he said.
Firefighters jumped in Gomez’s tow truck but realized fairly quickly they weren’t sure how to work it. So they asked Gomez to attach Groves’ car to the winch. They also used ropes to secure the vehicle.
The car was basically twisted upon itself, Enos said. The rear passenger door was where the roof was supposed to be, the roof was on the driver’s side, and the driver’s side rear door was under the car. It was like a Rubik’s cube.
When a firefighter tried to cut through the wreckage with the “jaws of life,” the car would open up on the underside, where Kelli was trapped, her feet dangling ever more in the open air, Enos said. He called for a crane, but it would be awhile before one would arrive.
“We were running out of options,” Enos said.
What happened next has been widely reported. A group of Navy Seabees was traveling south back to its base in Port Hueneme in Ventura County. Stuck in the ensuing jam – traffic was stopped in both directions – the Seabees got out of their vehicles and asked how they could help.
Like the fire captains assembled in Solvang at the time of the accident, these Seabees were “the best of the best,” said Clotworthy. They train other Seabees. “What are the chances of that?”
More luck or fate or something.
"I talked to the fire captain in charge, and he was excited to hear that we had an extendable-boom forklift just 200 to 300 feet behind the wreck, and he said to go get it," said Construction Mechanic 2nd Class Michael McCracken in a press release the Navy published.
Clotworthy had never seen such a forklift.
“If I had to sketch out the kind of vehicle I would want, this is it,” he said. “It looked like a Tonka toy a kid would play with.”
With its low center of gravity and ability to extend the 10 feet needed to cross from the southbound bridge to just under Kelli’s car, it was perfect, Clotworthy said.
Gomez was more familiar with the forklift, having worked for construction-supply stores. He saw what the Seabees had to offer and thought, “We’re golden.”
With that forklift, two firefighters could work the rescue, one to cut through the metal, another to assist Kelli and Mylo from the driver’s side of the car, which still hung perilously over the creek, Enos said.
Daughter Sage came out first. As the gurney passed by Gomez, he noticed her doll fall to the ground. He grabbed it fast and caught up with her before she was placed in the helicopter. He would find out later that although she’s not into dolls much, this one – a gift from her uncle named "Ruthie" – was really important. He would see her clutching it a week later as she prepared to leave Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara for the trip home.
Next was Mylo, and both Gomez and Clotworthy feared the worst. The baby hadn’t been moving or making any noise the entire time.
“I don’t want to see this,” Gomez thought. But then Mylo’s eyes opened and her arms and legs started moving. She had a scratch on her forehead, but basically she was fine. (Clotworthy now believes Mylo had been asleep the whole time.)
Gomez experienced a sense of relief he had never felt before.
“I wanted to cry," he said. "The other guys, they’re professionals. This is what they do." Not Gomez. As a tow truck driver, he’s usually called to a scene after a rescue. He's the cleanup guy. Removed from the situation.
Kelli was pulled out last. Unlike a movie, there was no applause. Just more sense of relief.
Rescuers said they were really touched by Kelli’s level-headed demeanor under the circumstances.
“I think the true heroes are Kelli and Sage and Mylo,” said Enos. Especially Kelli, the way she talked to Sage and kept her calm. “She deserves a lot of credit for keeping her family strong.”
Everyone’s kept in touch with the Groveses, emailing and visiting Kelli and Sage in the hospital and emailing more after they returned home.
“Our heartfelt prayers and thoughts are with Kelli and Sage in their recovery,” Clotworthy said. “We look forward to watching Mylo and Sage grow up. We’ve adopted them into our family.”
Through her attorney, Kelli said: "The Groves family continues to look forward to personally thanking all of the rescue personnel and first responders to this unfortunate incident at the appropriate time after they are cleared to travel."
Kelli has been overflowing in gratitude toward him, Gomez said, but he’s modest about his role.
“I really don’t know what I said. I don’t know anything special I said to her,” he said. All he could do was try to keep her calm while thinking the whole time that she could fall into the creek. “It was very heart-wrenching, the whole thing. … It was a very surreal thing. You wished it happened differently, but I’m so glad Kelli and her family survived.”
Clotworthy still marvels at the chain of good fortune – that Kelli’s car landed where it did instead of going off the bridge, that a tow truck was immediately on the scene, that a crew of experienced firefighters from all over the county were within 5-6 miles, that passing Navy Seabees had the perfect tool to help the rescue, and that a car seat would cushion baby Mylo so well she slept through the event.
“As bad as the situation was, there were so many good things, remarkable things that happened. And it’s without explanation," Clotworthy said. “We have to leave that for others.”