The sport-utility vehicle had been lying on its side at the bottom of the Plymouth drainage ditch for 18 freezing hours before one of its tires caught the eye of Geoff Racette as he biked home from work.
Walking toward the embankment on Saturday afternoon, the 20-year-old thought he saw something moving in the front seat and called out, "Is there anybody in there?"
"Thank God," answered Nancy Breberg, a 67-year-old Centerville woman who had been trapped in the car, her feet in cold water as temperatures dipped into the teens Friday night.
"He saved her life without a doubt," Capt. Craig Lindman of the Plymouth Police Department said Monday, as Breberg continued her recovery at Hennepin County Medical Center. Although listed in critical condition and suffering from frostbite to her feet, she is expected to make a full recovery.
Once that happens, Racette can expect a grateful visit from Breberg's husband, Ron. "I'm going to give him the biggest hug I'm giving anybody," he said Monday afternoon as he prepared to call Racette to say thank you.
The Breberg family had spent an anxious night after Nancy failed to arrive at a St. Louis Park hotel where she was to meet Ron after he attended a Shriners' meeting.
As the hours wore on, Ron Breberg became increasingly alarmed. "I was praying hard but losing hope," he said.
Police issued a missing-person report, and Ron's fellow Shriners mobilized a search.
But no one had found a trace of his wife's SUV until Racette scrambled down the 5-foot drop and broke through the ice covering a foot-deep pool of water.
The SUV was lying on the driver's side, and Breberg appeared to be standing up in about a foot of water. The vehicle doors were locked and she could not get out.
"Are you OK?" he said he asked her.
"Yes, yes, I'm OK," she said.
"How long have you been there?" he asked.
She said she had been there "since 7:30 this morning," evidently not clear that she had been trapped in the vehicle all night.
Racette went back to his bike to get a pocket knife to try to break a window to get her out. He couldn't break it. Then he went to the back of the vehicle, where a window was broken, and climbed in.
She told him she was diabetic and was feeling weak and was unable to crawl out the back. "I told her I am going to be right back, I'm going to grab some food." He went to his bike, dug out a bag of Chex Mix, and brought it to her. Then, he said, he went up to the road, and waved down a passerby.
Racette said he then called 911 and, while the passerby waited for the police, Racette stayed with her. "I was telling her police were on the way and she would be out of there real soon," he said.
Lindman said the 911 call came in at 12:27 p.m. and police arrived at 12:28 p.m. Firefighters broke the front windshield and pulled her out.
She was taken to North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, then transferred to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.
Breberg later told her husband her cellphone had fallen into the water inside the SUV and quit working. She had tried calling OnStar, the emergency vehicle service, but just as someone answered, the battery in the car went dead and the call broke off.
Ron Breberg said he spoke with his wife only briefly when she was brought to the hospital. She has since been put on a ventilator and is sedated to help treat secondary issues.
"She had a sense of humor," he said, saying she told him, "I thought of singing but there was no one to sing to." Instead, he said, his wife "pretty much spent all night praying."
Racette, a graduate of Armstrong High School, said he has been working in the meat department at Rainbow Foods, where he "stocks things and takes care of the fish" and is saving money so he can go to college. He plans to study psychology.
Racette said emergency personnel kept shaking his hand and calling him a hero on Saturday. But he shrugged off the praise: "I didn't do anything that anyone else wouldn't do," he said.
Ron Breberg would disagree.
"It was 18 hours when they found her," he said. "I can't describe how I felt. It was the best feeling I ever had."
Randy Furst • 612-673-7382