Frightened and shivering, Shelby Julien held her little brother’s hand. Six-year-old Paulie trembled with fear and from the cold river water lapping around his ankles. Still strapped in his booster seat in the back of his mother’s 1996 Toyota Corolla, he fumbled with the buckle, unable to open it. Shelby was already out of her seat next to him. At age nine she was always called the level-headed member of their family.
The young girl looked into the front seat to see their mom, Sheila, slumped against her door. To herself, so as not to scare her mother’s little man, Shelby prayed, “Dear Jesus, please help us get out of here.”
Shelby knew her survival and Paulie’s depended on whatever she did right now. Pushing the red button on her brother’s seat belt, she wasn’t discouraged even when it was stuck. Using her good memory, with her right hand she reached into her Mom’s black purse on the front seat, unzipped an interior pocket, and lifted the Swiss Army knife. She wasn’t supposed to know about it, but she snooped into everything and knew everyone’s secrets.
Then, instructing Paulie to keep his hands above his head, she used sawing motions to cut through the strong webbed fabric. When the lad was finally free of the safety seat, Shelby took her Mom’s new red cell phone out of the purse and punched #1 for Dad. Although he didn’t answer, she was comforted by his calming voice. Quickly and concisely she said, “Dad, the three of us are in the Coco River where we went off the highway overpass by Dairy Queen.” Then Shelby removed her blue sash belt, tied it around her brother’s chest and slipped her left arm through it, to keep them together.
Calmly, Shelby pulled off her own shoes and her brother’s so they could kick their feet more easily as she thought of how they would swim for shore.
The children weren’t exactly sure what had happened, but they did know their Mom’s cute gray car was in the Cocochic River and so were a lot of other cars and trucks. They were bobbing along in the current like pleasure boats on a Sunday afternoon, but this was Thursday at 3:30, just after school.
Since the two children were somewhat tied together, Shelby gave Paulie a big smile and manually rolled down the front passenger’s side window. He started to cry, afraid to leave the car.
“Paulie,” she spoke tenderly, “remember, Dad taught us how to tread water and do the doggie paddle. We’re gonna be okay.”
The little boy nodded as he wiped his yellow sweatshirt sleeve under his nose.
Shelby went through the window first, dragging her brother along.
Unbeknownst to them, their Dad, Bryan, had just arrived on the scene. His engineer’s mind kicked into high gear as he saw the disaster before him. An industrial crane was just south of his position, so the 44-year-old sprinted to it, then commandeered it to the river’s edge. Driving his new 2007 Jeep down from the road, he slammed it into the cab of the crane repeatedly, as he had seen once on a TV show, until the crane toppled over. He had now created his own metal pathway toward his children.
It was heart-wrenching for Bryan to see his offspring dog paddling, Paulie’s face hardly visible in the choppy waves. As Bryan lay prone near the end of the crane, it unexpectedly tipped downward, just in time for him to reach down with both hands, grabbing his sweethearts.
With Herculean strength he lifted Shelby and Paulie up onto his stomach, rolling his body as they came up. The crane clanked, but held securely.
By now the Toyota was completely submerged and far down along the causeway. Rescue vehicles lined both sides of the cluttered river. Shelby and Paulie were safe now in their Daddy’s arms. Shelby’s sad eyes told him the other truth as they clung to each other, too exhausted to shout, each murmured, “Thank you Jesus, thank you, thank you Jesus.”
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