In the darkness of early Tuesday morning, on a slushy two-lane central Minnesota road, Gretchen Wolbeck's car spun out of control, flipped upside down and crashed through the ice-covered backwater of Little Rock Creek.
Cold water quickly filled the car and Wolbeck frantically called out to her 4-year-old daughter, Haylie, strapped in her carseat in the back for her trip to day care.
There was no response. Haylie was submerged.
In a frenzied few seconds, the 26-year-old mother quickly unbuckled her seat belt and climbed into the back, racing to undo the straps holding the little girl.
"It felt like forever," she said.
Outside, two men driving in opposite directions saw the car resting on its hood in 2 to 3 feet of water, along Benton County Road 2 northeast of St. Cloud. They stopped and raced to help.
Craig "CJ" Harden and the other man rushed into the water, breaking through 2-inch-thick ice.
"We tried to open the doors but couldn't," Harden said. "They must have been locked. We couldn't see inside. It was pitch dark down in the water. I knew we had to think fast because if they were trapped with their heads down in the water, then we only had as much time as they could hold their breath."
They yelled for Wolbeck to honk if she could. The horn sounded.
Inside the car, Wolbeck could hear the men kick at the windows as she pulled her daughter close, cradling her.
"It's going to be OK," she assured her as they sat in waist-deep water.
"I'm so cold, Mommy," Haylie said.
But her daughter seemed to be fine and she could hear the men struggling to reach them.
Thank goodness they had seen the wreck, she said. "I don't think anyone would have known we were there. It was dark, but my lights were in the water," Wolbeck said.
Unable to open the doors, Harden ran to his car, rummaging through the trunk where he usually carries tools. "I didn't have anything in there but a 4-foot-long 2x4," he said. He threw the lumber to the other man, who smashed Wolbeck's car window.
Harden called 911.
After the glass broke, Wolbeck pushed on the car door and it moved a "hair," she said. It was enough to allow her rescuers to pry it open and pull them to safety.
Harden guided a trembling mother and daughter to the warmth of his car as emergency workers arrived on the scene.
Benton County Sheriff Brad Bennett praised the rescue.
"Good job," he said simply. "They were in the right place at the right time. They saved their lives probably by being there."
Harden shrugged off the notion that the rescue was a big deal. "Anybody would have done the same thing," he said. "Well, I guess it kind of [is] a big deal. It's just good it turned out this way. It could have been a lot worse."
But who was the second man?
"When we all turned away,'' Harden said, "he was gone."
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788