Kelli Groves hoped to one day personally thank the rescuers who pulled her and her two daughters from a mangled car teetering off a California freeway bridge in January.
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On Tuesday, she got that chance.
The 36-year-old elementary school teacher was reunited with Santa Barbara County firefighter Greg Nuckols and Sgt. Tom Mullen of the California Highway Patrol, when the heroes who talked her through the horrific ordeal made a surprise appearance on TODAY.Video: Mom recalls rescue from car dangling off bridge (on this page)
Groves tearfully embraced the men who helped save her family on Jan. 12, when an 18-wheeler that smashed into her BMW left them dangling from the side of a bridge more than 100 feet off the ground. Groves and her daughters, 10-year-old Sage and 10 week-old Mylo, were rescued in dramatic fashion. Nuckols helped talk Groves through it and removed her kids from the car by climbing across the area most exposed to a perilous drop off the bridge.
“(Nuckols) was my rock in the middle of all this,’’ Groves said. “It was someone that I could communicate with directly. As he would walk away, I would find myself saying, ‘Where’s Greg? Where’s Greg?’ He just reminded me of what I needed to do, and that was to save my girls.’’Video: Rescuers reunited with mom they saved from bridge (on this page)
Trapped in the car, Groves could feel the heat from the 18-wheeler below her and hear the tires exploding as they caught fire. The truck driver, Charles Allison Jr., was killed in the accident. He was later found to have had methamphetamine in his body at the time of his death.
A tow truck driver on the scene immediately called 911, and a group of experienced fire captains from around California who had gathered for training at a location five miles from the accident arrived quickly. A team of Navy Seabees construction workers who were stuck in the traffic resulting from the accident had with them a massive and fork-lift that was able to stabilize the teetering car. After two hours and 21 minutes, firefighters using the jaws of life extricated the family from the wreckage.
“You can’t beat the fire department in Santa Barbara County,’’ Mullen said. “They’re the top. I said, ‘If you don’t know that you have the best fire department in California, then watch the news tonight and you’re going to see it.’ They did an excellent job, and it was great having Seabees there.’’
Sage suffered a broken pelvis, while Mylo, now six months, had only a cut on her head thanks to her baby car seat. Groves suffered a fractured pelvis and other orthopedic injuries. She and Sage are undergoing long-term physical therapy.
“It’s still surreal to me that we’re sitting here and that was us in that car,’’ Groves told Matt Lauer. “It was terror at first and then it fades to relief, huge amount of relief and gratitude. It’s hard to watch, but at the same time it really happened. (It was) not all of our times, all three of us. It’s just a miracle.’’
Groves was conscious through the entire ordeal. She could not see either of her daughters, but was able to reach behind her and feel Mylo’s head, which was bleeding as the infant cried. Groves was yelling to Sage, who was not responding.
“I remember each step of the way and the terror of looking down and realizing how high we were and what fate could lie ahead of us,’’ Groves said. “I thought for a minute maybe (Sage) was thrown out, and all I saw was a small patch of her hair smashed through the metal and the debris. I started tapping her and calling out her name and she wouldn’t answer and wasn’t moving. I had no idea what shape the rest of her body was in. All I could see was that little circle of her head.’’
Groves thanked the rescue workers in public statements in the aftermath of the accident, but hadn't been able to thank them in person until Tuesday.
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