MnDOT worker Don Machacek sprang into action as a mother and her two kids prayed to be rescued.
Don Machacek saw the car, nose down in an algae-covered pond. "There were three sets of eyes that were looking out the back window at me," he said.
Minutes before, Machacek, a Minnesota highway first responder, had heard the Wednesday afternoon emergency call. A car was submerged in a pond along Interstate 35W in Richfield.
Inside the car, Stella Obadiya, 46, of Hugo and her 8-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter prayed, waiting to be rescued after calling 911.
"I was calm, but I was so worried," Obadiya said. "My kids were, 'Let's get out of here!' "
She had tried to get out the moment the car hit the water, but "I couldn't open the door."
Water was seeping in, filling the front seat nearly to the roof and leaving only enough airspace for the three in the back to keep their heads above the water.
"The water got up to my face, but I didn't swallow any water," Obadiya said.
After hustling down the embankment and climbing over the two fences the car had plowed through, Machacek radioed his supervisor: "I'm going in." Machacek didn't know if the car was going to slip farther into the water. He just knew "I have to save these people." He dropped his cell phone, radio and wallet in the grass and made his way into the pond, sinking into muck up to his knees, water to his neck.
His supervisor back at the garage watched as roadside traffic cameras snapped still shots at about 10-second intervals. Machacek grabbed the door handle and pulled the door open. More water rushed into the car and he started getting the three out of the car. Obadiya's son made his way to shore. Machacek said the mother screamed: "I can't swim" and began to grab onto her daughter. Machacek grabbed them both, keeping them afloat as they headed to shore.
"I made sure they were all right," he said. Machacek said Obadiya thanked him twice, as State Patrol troopers and other rescue workers began to arrive.
Neither she nor the children required medical attention. A trooper gave them a ride to a nearby restaurant where her husband met them.
"You think you've seen it all," Machacek said. "And then something like this happens."
Obadiya, who was taking her children to the Valleyfair amusement park, said she misjudged the location of her exit as she turned to the right at 50 to 55 miles per hour.
"First it was the grass, that led to the fence and then the pond," she said. "I didn't even know there was a pond there."
She said she "couldn't control the car. ... [The engine] was revving. My leg was on the brake. It wasn't until the water [that] the car slowed."
A check of the vehicle identification number through Toyota's website showed that Obadiya's Camry is not covered by the sweeping sudden-acceleration recall that has dogged the automaker. She said she has not had any similar problems with the car since she bought it new.
Helpful hands close to danger
Machacek, 49, has spent the last four years driving the metro highways helping motorists and assisting law enforcement as part of the Minnesota Department of Transportation's Freeway Incident Response Safety Team. The yellow trucks are familiar to most motorists as the former "Highway Helper" trucks.
Machacek drives 160 to 200 miles a day along a highway route through the metro, delivering gas to stranded motorists, changing flat tires, calling tow trucks and guiding traffic around accidents. He and his fellow workers also are often the ones who move the recliner, mattresses, ladders, tire remnants, 400-pound toolbox and other debris that fall onto the highways, creating hazards for motorists.
"[These responders] are out there on the front lines," said Machacek's supervisor, John Lardy. "They're changing tires while cars are whizzing by 2 or 3 feet away."
They're also often first on an accident scene to help the victims. But Machacek just grunted at the suggestion that he was the hero. "Nah," he said. "I was just doing my job. You guys are the ones making it out to be a big thing. ... I love my job. I love helping people."