TODAY   |  May 08, 2012

Mom recalls rescue from car dangling off bridge

In a daring rescue, emergency personnel in Southern Calif. pulled Kelli Groves and her two young daughters from their car, which had been hit by a truck and was dangling off a bridge. NBC’s Kristen Dahlgren reports and TODAY’s Matt Lauer speaks with Groves about the terrifying ordeal.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> now that dramatic story out of california. a mother and her two young daughters, who were rescued as their car dangled from a bridge. we're going to hear from them in a moment. but first, nbc's kristen dahlgren has their story. kristen , good morning to you.

>> hey, good morning, matt. it is truly amazing that they're sitting there with you. that family was lucky to your vief the initial impact, let alone those hours spent teetering over the edge . these images are terrifying. a bmw mangled beyond recognition, barely hanging on the side of a bridge. inside, 36-year-old first grade teacher kelli lynne grove and her two children. below, 100- foot drop .

>> engine 31 will be at a vehicle that's teetering off the bridge, with three patients in it at this time.

>> reporter: groves car had been rear-ended by a tractor trailer. the truck plunged over the edge , and its driver was killed. but groves, her 10-year-old sage and her 10-week-old baby millo, were miraculously alive. seat belt , air bags and the baby's car seat had saved them from the initial impact. but their lives were still hanging by a thread . any move was risky.

>> each time we tried to pry her out, the car kept sleeping over the side a little bit more.

>> reporter: groves pleaded for rescuers to save her children. and then an amazing stroke of luck. navy seabees happened to drive by. and then just happened to have a massive and rare piece of equipment that could stabilize the car.

>> we said we do have this that's capable of picking up 10,000 points. we sure can hold that car up and help save those lives.

>> it was a turning point for us. we knew at that point that the vehicle wasn't going to fall. it also gave a platform for our workers to work from.

>> reporter: it took 2 hours and 21 minutes but once stable, firefighters could use the jaws of life and all three were pulled from the wreckage. for sage, who had some broken bones , then milo, miraculously almost unscathed. and finally mom was lifted to safety. groves had fractures, but like her girls, was alive. saved by a group of fearless rescuers, and one incredible stroke of luck. now those navy seabees were on their way home from a training exercise. at first they didn't realize exactly what was going on so they offered to help direct traffic, not knowing that they had the piece of equipment that would ultimately save three lives. matt?

>> all right, kristen dahlgren, thank you so much. kelli groves is with us exus clive, along with her daughters sage and milo. michael penn is the family's attorney. you are one lucky family.

>> yeah.

>> i look at that footage, kelli , and i can't believe the car didn't go over, and what -- i don't think we mentioned there, you're sitting in that car, you saw the truck that hit you go over and explode beneath you.

>> right. i was conscious the whole time and 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.

>> you even felt the heat from that truck burning below and you could hear the tires exploding.

>> right.

>> as they caught fire.

>> right.

>> based on where you were sitting, could you see and communicate with your daughters?

>> i could not see either one of them. i could reach my arm back and i could feel milo's head. and as i brought my hand back, i noticed she was bleeding pretty badly from her head. but i couldn't see her face. i could hear her crying a little bit. sage is the one that i had no idea where she was in the car.

>> were you yelling to her?

>> it was a mangled mess, and i was yelling for her. i said sage, sage, you've been in an accident. pass that one off. she wants to talk. i couldn't see where she had been in the car. i thought for a minute maybe she'd been thrown out.

>> right.

>> and all i saw was a small patch of her hair.

>> this is sage's hair.

>> this is sage, yes.

>> smashed through the metal and the debris and i started patting her head calling out to her sage, sage, answer me. and she wouldn't answer me and she wasn't moving. and i had no idea what shape the rest of her body was in. all i could see was that little circle of her head.

>> did you feel the car teetering? i mean, did you feel as if it was slipping?

>> there were moments that i could feel a little jolt, more so when the rescuers were trying to cut through the metal. at that first instant, it was just looking down, knowing that this is most likely what will happen.

>> a lot of lucky things here. there was a tow truck on the scene, called 911. firefighters and police officers arrived quickly. there were a lot of them in the area, because of a training exercise. and then these navy seabees arrived with this one piece of equipment that can stabilize that car so rescuers like greg knuckles, who is a firefighter from santa barbara , could really talk you through this whole thing. what was having him there like for you?

>> he was my rock in the middle of all this. 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 -- he just reminded me of why i -- what i needed to do. and that was to save my girls.

>> he eventually climbed over the side of the car that was most exposed to the drop.

>> right.

>> and saved milo.

>> milo.

>> and then you watched as sage was removed from the car as well and you were removed as well. did you have a chance in all the frenzy that happened afterwards to thank these people who rescued you?

>> no, the one thing, when something like this happens is, i have yet to be able to say in person, and meet all the people that saved our lives. i have yet to say thank you. and that's just an understatement.

>> well, greg knuckles who is with the santa barbara fire department and sergeant tom mullen of the california highway patrol are with us.

>> no.

>> this morning. and i know they would like to say something to you, so gentlemen, if you could come in. nice to see you. it's a pleasure. good to see you.

>> hi, matt.

>> nice to see you.

>> thank you. thank you.

>> and i think you did actually get to see --

>> i'm fine, how are you?

>> who are you? feeling better?

>> why don't you have a seat there for a second. guys, i mean, you arrived at the scene. had you ever seen anything like that, this car dangling like that?

>> no, i hadn't. that was something that was incomprehensible, quite frankly.

>> how did she do during all this?

>> fantastic. yes. kelli you were amazingly strong. once we sort of connected and discussed, you know, what was happening, and you did everything that we asked of you and even more. and sage you were absolutely amazing and brave. very brave girl.

>> you, i mean, there was a lot of luck involved here. some very skilled rescue. but also a lot of luck in terms of the things that happened one after another.

>> there was. you know, you can't beat the fire department of san today barbara county. they're the tops. and i was in the office that day to do a presentation on our grants to the business association , and as soon as the whole accident was over i went and did my presentation, and the first thing i told them, 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. and they did an excellent job. it was just -- it was great having the seabees there. seabees actually got stuck in traffic. i remember at the point the seabee came up to my officer and said hey, we got a piece of equipment that might be able to help and everybody started running very quickly. the firemen were running. the seabees were running. we had to back a couple of the big rigs out to get the fork lift , the flat bed loaded up.

>> and kelly, when you finally were extricated from this wreckage and in the days that followed when you saw that footage that we've now been showing so often for the first time, did it hit you in a different way?

>> it's still surreal to me that we're sitting here, and that was us in that car. it was terror at first, and then it fades to just relief. huge amount of relief and gratitude, and it's hard to watch but at the same time, it really happened. it's what we're taking with our lives and moving forward.

>> you know, it's the expression, it wasn't your time ever had true meaning, this is the time. it was not your time.

>> not all of our times. the three of us, it's just a miracle.

>> we're happy for you. guys, thank you so much. and a job well done. and you guys do this every day. it's nice to be able to have the chance to stop and recognize your efforts.