Kindness of Strangers
Cyclist Rescues Woman Whose Car Plunged into Pond
By Colleen Bradford
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri)
July 9, 1997
THE TWO FIRETRUCKS barreling past Jazell Thomas made her heart pound Tuesday morning.
A short time earlier Thomas had been following her mother, Janice Jernigans, as the 48-year-old woman drove to her job teaching in the Central West End. Jernigans had been sick the day before, so Thomas wanted to be sure her mother made it to work. Now, Thomas wondered, had something happened to Mom? She began to follow the firetrucks west.
Retired firefighter Steve Marciano had been on his usual morning bike ride in Forest Park when he heard the squealing tires. He turned to see Jernigans' blue van repeatedly sideswipe a car in the westbound lanes of Forest Park Parkway, cut across the eastbound lanes, crash through a fence and hurtle into a pond in the park.
Marciano immediately headed for the pond. Soon, he was swimming to the van.
Later Tuesday, he and Thomas got to savor a happy ending to what could have turned into a deadly story.
Thomas, 28, had been following her mother Tuesday morning, but the two women got separated when Thomas stopped for gas. When Thomas reached her mother's school - Hamilton Elementary - she discovered her mother hadn't arrived. Thinking Jernigans had pulled over somewhere to wait for her, Thomas, with her two young daughters in the car, retraced their path.
Then Thomas saw the firetrucks.
"I saw the fire engines pass me, and I just started praying," Thomas said. "I had a bad feeling. Something just came over me."
The firetrucks headed for the northeast corner of Forest Park, just off Forest Park Parkway.
In a pond, almost completely submerged, was her mother's van.
Near the pond, Thomas frantically threw her car into park and ordered her 2- and 4-year-old girls to stay put. They began to cry, sensing something had happened to Grandma, Thomas said.
As Thomas ran toward the pond she heard a bystander recounting to another person how the woman inside the van had become trapped. The woman was dead, the bystander said.
Sobbing, Thomas continued running.
Then, she glimpsed her mother, sitting quietly along the edge of the water. She was dripping wet - but she was alive. Nearby was Marciano, the retired firefighter who saw the van leave the road and crash into the water.
"It crashed through the fence and was moving at a fast pace," Marciano said. "The van wasn't slowing at all. Somehow she avoided one pond, and I was watching from my bike as she barely got between a tree and an outhouse."
Marciano watched in horror as the van flew over a levee and plunged into a second pond. Marciano went in after the driver, who apparently had blacked out.
Thomas was sitting in the van, which was quickly filling with water. She appeared dazed.
"She wasn't coming out, so I knew something was wrong," Marciano said. "I reached in and said, 'Give me your hand. Give me your hand.' And she wasn't listening. I just kept telling her, 'You can't stay!' "
The water had risen to Jernigans' neck. She took Marciano's hand and, with the help of others, Marciano pulled her to safety.
One witness, Mert Bernstein, said two other men also went into the water to help save Jernigans.
One was Charles Rouse, driver of the car hit by Jernigans' van. He is a Catholic priest, on leave from the Archdiocese of Baltimore to do graduate work at Washington University. He had just left home and was on his way to take a final exam in chemical dependency.
That's when the van sideswiped his car for about half a block, before forcing both vehicles into the oncoming lanes and crashing through a fe nce, racing down an embankment, running over a picnic bench and landing in the water.
Rouse, 47, climbed from the passenger side of his car - virtually the entire right side was banged up - and ran to the pond in time to see the van begin to sink.
Rouse swam to the van, now nearly submerged, and checked all the seats to make certain no children were inside.
"My hat is off to these people, because they were really taking a risk," said Bernstein, a Washington University law professor who was walking in the park with his wife when the accident happened. "There was no sign of movement inside the van, so without these guys going in, I doubt she would have gotten out."
After being rescued, Jernigans was taken to an area hospital by an ambulance crew. She was not seriously injured; she was examined and sent home.
Thomas said Tuesday afternoon that the doctors had not determined why Jernigans blacked out. They plan to conduct more tests.
Jernigans told her daughter that she only remembers looking at a bank as she drove along Forest Park Parkway. Then, she remembers nothing - until the voice.
"She said she remembers hearing a nice man's voice, and I think that was the retired fireman she was talking about," Thomas said. "She just says she remembers that nice voice, like in a dream setting, of someone who was helping her."
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