Chris Willden was driving along a winding canyon road in Utah on Saturday when he spotted something in the riverbank: an overturned car, submerged in the icy water, and something else.
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"At first when I noticed the little girl, honestly, I thought she was a doll floating upside-down," Willden told NBC's TODAY Show. "After that, I realized there's other lives in there; you need to just press on, get as many lives as you can."
So Willden, a former police officer, sprung into action. Thanks to him and a handful of other strangers-turned-rescuers, the driver and three children who were inside the car were saved from Utah's frigid Logan River — which had already knocked two of the kids unconscious.
Roger Andersen, 46, the driver of the car, had been able to free himself, but 9-year-old daughter Mia, 4-year-old son Baylor, and their 9-year-old friend Kenya Wildman were trapped.
"The first thought was, 'So this is it how it ends,'" Andersen said while choking back tears Monday at a news conference in Logan, about 80 miles north of Salt Lake City. "This could very easily have been a funeral for four of us ... Without hesitation, they just did what they had to do ... And that ... for our family, made all the difference."
The four were on their way to a ski resort Saturday when the New Year's Eve accident happened, according to the Herald Journal News, which first reported the story.
The road didn't appear icy, at first, but as they made their way up the canyon, it got slicker so he slowed. Just one tap on the brakes was all it took.
"In a second, I was completely off the road and sliding down the embankment," Andersen said. "Within a second, the entire cabin of the vehicle was full of water."
He struggled to free the children from their seatbelts, but couldn't get them loose.
Drastic measures: A handgun rescue
Chris Willden, who was driving by with his father at that very moment, pulled over. He rushed into the river and surveyed the scene inside the vehicle. Andersen had gotten out of his car, but the kids were all trapped. Andersen's children were by now floating unconscious in the river water that was filling the car, four-year-old Baylor still strapped into his child seat, reported TODAY. Nine-year-old Kenya had found an air pocket but could not free herself from her seat belt.
That's when Willden's police officer training — along with his handgun and knife — became crucial.
"Chris has always been one who has been prepared," Bruce Willden told TODAY of his son. "He never leaves the house when he doesn't have with these three items with him: A firearm, and a knife, and a portable flashlight."
The men tried to pry open the car doors and windows with no luck. Chris knew what he had to do: Using his handgun, he shot the window, and then used his knife to saw through the seatbelts.
When he turned around, he saw about 7 others had pulled over on the side of the road, ready to assist with the rescue, he said.
"I honestly can't say why people did what they did. I just know that there were kids in harm's way, and a lot of volunteers came out of the woodwork to help get the kids out of the river," he said.
The rescuers pulled the children one-by-one from the car and passed them up the river bank to others, where some performed CPR on two of them — Andersen's children.
They all loaded up into a friend's SUV and sped down the mountain for help, and were met about halfway by paramedics, Andersen said.
An inspiring story
His two children were flown to a hospital in Salt Lake City, treated for hypothermia and released on Monday. The family friend also was treated and released.
"In a matter of a couple of days, now Baylor is running around just like nothing ever happened to him, and Mia is fine and Kenya is also fine," he said. "It's a story to me that is inspiring in many ways."
Chris Willden told TODAY his experience in the police force gave him the confidence to fire a weapon without harming the children.
"I had actually fired handguns underwater. I had a pretty good idea on the trajectory, what the bullet would do from that caliber," he said.
Andersen told his rescuers that they inspired him to learn more about how to help others.
"I need to do more so I can be at that level where I can step in and help people," Andersen said.
Kenya's father, Dennis Wildman, called it "a great story about the human spirit and our desire to help others."
He said the bystanders who didn't hesitate to help "literally brought our children home to us."
"We just want to say thank you," he said.
Roger Andersen's wife, Mindy, fought to keep from crying Monday as she thanked the bystanders for saving the children's lives.
"Hero," she said, "is not even big enough for what they did."
The Associated Press and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.