There was only one reason for Mauricio Gonzalez to do anything other than call 911 when he heard screams from his 15th-floor Aventura, Fla., apartment, looked out and saw a car in the water with a child trapped inside and a frantic mother outside.
“I’m a father of two kids,” Gonzalez told TODAY’s Ann Curry on Monday. “I just felt the pain and the panic of their mother, so I decided to be there and to help.”
What could have been a tragedy but for Gonzalez’ determination began in the most mundane manner last Tuesday.
Tatiana Columbus, who lived in the same apartment tower overlooking a canal as Gonzalez, was getting her children, 12-year-old Esteban and 4-year-old Mia into her car. Esteban was already in the front seat when Columbus began strapping her daughter into her child safety seat in the rear.
Her back turned to the front seat, she never saw Esteban slide into the driver’s seat and start the car. The vehicle had a manual transmission and had been left in first gear, so when Esteban turned the key, the car jumped forward and started in gear.
“I had no idea what my son was doing at the time,” Columbus told Curry. “When I realized he was in the driver’s seat, it was too late and the car was already in motion. It jump-started and proceeded to go in the water.”
She tried with all her might to hold the car back, spraining an ankle and suffering deep bruises in the process, but the car kept rolling.
“I couldn’t believe what was happening to me,” she said. “When I realized we were all going in the water, I jumped in after my children.”
Esteban got out of the car as it started to sink nose-first, and even tried to go back in to get his sister, who was breathing from an air pocket trapped in the back of the car.
“It was pretty scary,” he said. “I held my breath for as long as I could.”
Another resident of the building who lived on the ninth floor happened by and ran to Columbus’ aid.
“I believe he was on his way to work and he jumped in with us,” she said. “He attempted to open the door to get the baby out, and he couldn’t. There was nothing we could do.”
But Gonzalez by then was on his way. A triathlete with two sons, ages 3 years and 4 months, Gonzalez had heard Columbus’ initial screams and immediately called 911. But he also knew that might not be enough to save the trapped girl.
“I thought that this required immediate attention if we wanted a happy ending,” he said matter-of-factly. “I grabbed my goggles because I knew I was going in the water, and ran down the stairs from the 15th floor and jumped in the water to help.”
He could see Mia through the already submerged back window of the car, and called for someone to give him a tool he could use to break the window. Someone gave him a hammer, but he found it impossible to swing with enough force underwater to break the safety glass.
He asked for something else, and someone handed him a lawn edger. Standing on the back hatch of the sinking car, he managed to shatter the window on his second swing, then dove in through the opening, grabbing Mia and hauling the terrified girl out. He handed her to firefighters, who had arrived on the scene, and they made sure she was uninjured. Gonzalez gashed his hand during the rescue and later took eight stitches to repair the damage.
Columbus was cited by Aventura police for leaving children unattended or unsupervised in a motor vehicle. She has said she can’t be angry with her son, whose urge to start cars and drive them has been thoroughly dampened.
Esteban was just grateful that there were good Samaritans who saved the day.
“I would just like to say thank you,” he told Curry. “I screamed so loud and I’m happy that Mauricio came down, and I’m happy that the other person came down and tried to open the door.”
The family was fortunate that Gonzalez was around at all. He works for American Express and spends a lot of time on the road, and later this year he is scheduled to be transferred to Mexico.
He looked at what he did more as an obligation than heroism.
“I think people should try to help as much as possible,” he said. “I’m glad that I was there. I believe I’m an instrument of God. I’m glad I was there to help and this is a happy ending for everyone.”
“It was like the worst day of my life and also the best day, and I thank God that he put all these good people there for us,” said Columbus. “I understand that Mauricio travels a lot for work, and I was just so happy he was there to help us out. He’s our hero.”