ZELIENOPLE — Rescuers are being credited with saving the life of a borough man trapped inside an overturned car in freezing water up to its windows in pitch darkness Sunday night.
Henry Leo Stefanacci, 48, could not be seen from shore. But he could be heard.
“He was screaming for help,” said Chief Rob Reeb of the Zelienople Volunteer Fire Department. “He sounded frantic.”
No time to waste, water rescue specialists braved the icy waters and jumped in with nothing on but blue jeans, casual shirts and life jackets.
Stefanacci was unable to speak and appeared near the brink of hypothermia when he was later flown by medical helicopter to a Pittsburgh hospital, authorities said.
He remained in critical condition Tuesday morning.
Stefanacci is a longtime special education teacher at Seneca Valley Middle School.
Emergency officials credited first responders for saving Stefanacci’s life.
“This was a difficult rescue and an incredible save by the guys,” said Mark Lauer, head of the newly formed Butler County Water Rescue Team and member of the Unionville Volunteer Fire Department.
Zelienople police believe Stefanacci was northbound on Halstead Boulevard near the Schreiber Industrial Park when he lost control of his 2002 Toyota Camry while traveling around a bend.
The car went off the road and plunged down a 15-foot embankment into the creek.
“It looks like he went straight off the road,” Zelienople police Chief Jim Miller said.
The four-door, 2002 Toyota Camry landed upside down and badly damaged in Connoquenessing Creek. Stefanacci, the only one in the vehicle, was unable to get out.
No one saw the crash. A passing motorist, however, noticed tire tracks in the snow leading off the road and toward the creek.
The passer-by stopped and called 911.
Reeb was the second rescuer on scene. His captain beat him there.
Both men assessed the predicament.
“The car was half in and half out of the water,” Reeb said. “We heard him yelling. The water level was above the windows. There was no way for him to get out.”
Zelienople firefighters Scott Garing and Greg Dindinger, both water rescue members, soon got there and were sent into the water.
They would learn later that the water temperature was 32 degrees.
Reeb, also a water rescue team member, had in his car some rescue gear, including life jackets and safety rope.
Garing and Dindinger donned the jackets and took the rope. They got to the car, partially submerged in 3 feet of water that stretched about 100 feet shore to shore.
Reeb’s son, Jake, a firefighter with the rescue team, a short time later was the third man in the water.
The trio was in the water for about 10 minutes or so and eventually got the rear passenger side door ajar.
But Stefanacci was too cold to move and help his own rescue.
When the frigid temperature forced the first three rescuers out of the water, three other rescue members, wearing dry suits and self-contained breathing apparatus, arrived.
This time, they also carried with them the “Jaws of Life,” which they used to pry open the door.
“While this was going on,” Reeb said, “they had to hold (Stefanacci’s) head above the water.”
Stefanacci was “incoherent,” authorities said, and unable to speak.
“We were tying to find out if he was by himself or if there was anyone else in the car,” Reeb said.
Rescuers used a Stokes basket to get Stefanacci to shore. He was taken to the ambulance and driven to Zelienople Airport.
“Another 10 or 15 minutes,” Lauer said, “he probably would have died.”
Stat MedEvac helicopter flew Stefanacci to UPMC Presbyterian Hospital.
A wrecker eventually pulled the car out of the creek.
Road conditions did not appear to be a factor in the crash, Miller said.
Miller said investigators do not know if alcohol may have been a factor, and they are currently awaiting toxicology results from blood tests performed as part of standard procedure.
The crash happened about one-quarter mile from Stefanacci’s house. Police said his wife reportedly had last seen him about noon Sunday.
At Seneca Valley School District, spokesman Linda Andreassi said in a statement that faculty, staff and students were “saddened to hear about the accident, especially given the serious nature of the injuries.”
“Our thoughts and prayers are with him for a full recovery,” she said.