STEVENSVILLE – Catherine Campbell is convinced her days of winter driving are over.
That decision came on the same day that her faith in mankind was renewed by the selfless acts of strangers who braved icy waters to save her and her sister’s lives.
Last Saturday, the 67-year-old Stevensville woman was driving her sister, Frances Alexander, 65, to Salt Lake City for a medical examination.
They hadn’t quite made it to Sula when disaster struck.
“I was in a long string of traffic and keeping my distance from the other guys, when my wheel hit some slush,” Campbell said. “We went straight down the bank. There was no shoulder, no guardrail, no nothing.”
In the blink of an eye, Campbell’s 2005 Infiniti had plunged down a steep embankment and was upside down in the East Fork of the Bitterroot River.
“It took like a second to happen,” she said.
The interior of the car filled immediately with ice cold water.
Upside down, still strapped in by her seatbelt, Campbell’s head was completely engulfed by the rushing water.
“For several moments, I couldn’t find anything,” she said. “The side airbags had deployed. I couldn’t find my seat belt release. I didn’t know I was upside down. I thought the whole thing was full of water.”
When Campbell finally found her seat belt release, she fell to the ceiling of the car and was able to get her head above the water line.
She saw her sister still hanging upside down.
“I was so worried about her,” Campbell said. “I thought she might be drowning. And then I saw the water wasn’t as deep on her side.”
Her sister was in obvious pain.
Just behind Campbell’s car, Ron and Jenny Schilz and their 19-year-old son Luke were traveling from their home in Missoula to Lost Trail Powder Mountain for a day of skiing with their family friend, Tim Holmberg.
“I saw the car slide off the edge,” Ron Schilz said. “It was almost surreal. That’s not something that normally happens.”
Luke was out of the car before it rolled to a stop and plunging down the hillside and into the icy river, said his mother. He found the two women inside with less than a foot of airspace left.
The other two men were right behind him.
They began working to try to get the car door open. It was jammed and the women were trapped inside.
Moments later, an off-duty Missoula EMT came on the scene. No one knows his name for sure.
“I think he was called PJ,” Campbell said.
“He was probably in his 30s,” Schilz said. “He really deserves a lot of credit.”
Whatever his name, everyone there appreciated his calm as he popped out the back window and crawled on through to help Campbell with her sister.
“He told me to release her belt and she immediately fell onto the ceiling,” Campbell said. “He helped pull her back through the car. He held her until the ambulance got there. He was wonderful.”
When local emergency crews arrived on the scene, Alexander was placed on a litter and the group of people who had stopped helped carry her up the steep hillside.
It took some time to get the side door popped open, allowing Campbell to exit the vehicle.
“She was probably in there for 20 minutes,” Schilz said. “She was definitely soaking wet and cold. Once we got the door open, she was able to walk out.”
With a rope tied around her waist, Campbell was helped up the bank and into a waiting vehicle with its promise of warmth.
“After we got her out, I looked inside,” Schilz said. “It was amazing that she survived.”
On Tuesday, Campbell was still sitting by her sister’s bedside at Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital. Alexander suffered three broken ribs in the accident.
“She’s still in pain, but she’s doing a lot better today,” Campbell said. “I think she’ll go home today or tomorrow.”
Campbell said they were both so grateful to all the people who came to their aid.
“I couldn’t believe that those guys would just plunge into that cold water to help us like that,” she said. “They were so brave and willing and daring and strong. I just want to thank them for all they had done. They are wonderful.”
Campbell guessed they all were headed for the ski hill for a fun day on the slopes.
“I figured I ruined their day,” she said.
Not so, said Schilz.
“We all decided we still wanted to go skiing afterward,” he said. “My pants were soaking wet and my boots were full of water. Tim drove up to the ski area barefoot with the heat blasting away.”