Firefighters recall murky St. Croix River rescue

Associated Press

STILLWATER, Minn. — Volunteer firefighters Jonas Werpy and Tim Bell remember feeling around in the black waters of the St. Croix River to find the four people trapped in a sport utility vehicle that had plunged into the 33-degree water on Sunday night.

"I really couldn’t see in the car, so I had to go by feel," said Werpy, a senior law enforcement major at the University of St. Thomas. "I had no clue what was what when I was down there."

Werpy, 25, said the Sunday night incident was his first rescue dive. He was at home watching the news when his pager went off at 10:04 p.m. By 10:13 p.m. he had on his dry suit, air tanks and dive mask and was entering cold water.

Werpy said he tried to open the car doors, but they were locked. Then he tried to break a window with a knife, but the knife broke and the window didn’t.


He resurfaced, asked for a glass punch and went back down to break a rear driver’s-side window. It broke, he said, but water didn’t rush into the vehicle, so that meant there wasn’t much air inside.

"Everyone was under water from what I saw, there was no air pocket that was visible from where I was," Werpy said.

He reached into the blackness and found an unconscious woman, and handed her up to the crew in the boat. He dived in again and found a second victim. When he dived in a third time, and his uncovered, cut-up hands were nearly frozen.

Werpy found Mohanraj Pothiraj, 28, of Edina, but it took a little longer to get him out of the SUV and into the boat. When Werpy surfaced, he was told to get out of the water, and Bell went in.

Bell had on a cold-water rescue suit, but no air mask or tanks. He said he used his foot to search the car’s interior.

"I reached in and felt one, so I grabbed her ankle and started to pull her out," said Bell, 60, a retired Stillwater police officer who’s been diving for about 16 years.

"She actually rolled over and pulled away from me. I told the guys in the boat, ‘This one’s still alive, and she’s fighting with me."’ When he placed the woman in the rescue boat, she rolled over and gasped.

"This is a one shot in a million that you actually save people," Bell said.


Bell thinks the woman he rescued, Deepa Vellusamy, 25, of Minneapolis, was "on her back with her face up against the roof of the car in the air zone."

All four victims were taken to Regions Hospital in St. Paul.

Pothiraj died Monday. Rohini Krishnamurthy, 27, of Minneapolis, died Tuesday.

Kalaiselvi Vijayakumar, 25, of Minneapolis, and Vellusamy remain hospitalized.

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