Seneca Valley Middle School teacher Leo Stefanacci says he is lucky to be alive after his car plunged into the Connoquenessing Creek in March. Trapped upside down in the icy water, he was rescued after four teenage volunteer firefighters spotted his tire tracks in the snow and called 911. Stefanacci is convinced he was saved for a reason.
Leo Stefanacci thought he was going to die the night his car plunged into and became submerged in the Connoquenessing Creek in early March. The Seneca Valley Middle School special education teacher survived thanks to the quick actions of passers-by, and instead of losing his life, Stefanacci found God. Nearly a month and a half later, Stefanacci is recovering and expects to be back to teaching in the next school year. But getting better is what’s on his mind now as he has lingering problems with speech and cognitive issues following the accident. It’s a blessing he’s here at all, according to doctors. The teacher’s body temperature fell to 77 degrees during the ordeal, and he faced pneumonia and cardiac arrest in the hours following his arrival at a Pittsburgh hospital. “Technically I was dead for about two hours,” he said, adding that it’s a miracle he suffered no permanent brain or heart damage. Stefanacci estimated that he’s about 60 percent healthy now, adding that he’s already finished rigorous rehabilitation stints with occupational and physical therapists. He still participates in speech therapy and soon expects to start attending cognitive therapy three days a week. But you won’t hear Stefanacci complain. All he has to do is look at his wife, Kelly, and their daughters, Gianna, 12, and Carmen, 9. It was the thought of his daughters that helped him stay conscious until rescuers arrived. The date was March 3 and Stefanacci was driving to his home in Zelienople about 9:30 p.m. when he came to a bend in the road near Halstead Boulevard. Instead of turning, his car continued straight and went over the bank and into the creek. Stranded with his upside down car quickly filling with icy water, Stefanacci could do nothing but scream for help. For Stefanacci, it was “the grace of God” in what happened next. Four teenage volunteer firefighters en route to the Burger King on Route 19 just north of Zelienople happened to spot the tire tracks in the snow. They quickly called 911 and waited at the scene. Firefighters said after the accident that Stefanacci is incredibly lucky that the teens spotted his tire tracks. The car’s lights had gone out under the water and it’s not likely anyone else would have seen the car on such a dark winter night. What some call luck, others call fate. And Stefanacci is convinced his life was saved for a reason. “I found God,” he said. “I was a doubting Thomas before. I had to see it to believe it. Well, I saw it.” The teacher said he gets cards, e-mails and other correspondences daily from well-wishers, words of kindness that fill his heart. He thanked those people and also offered kind words to the teenagers who saved his life. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “They are my heroes.” In a statement from the school, middle school Principal Andrea Peck said Stefanacci is a vital part of the team at the school and that the staff and students alike are anxious for his recovery. “The response we have received from students, parents and staff in regards to Mr. Stefanacci’s condition and healing process has been overwhelming,” Peck said. “It really shows what a connection he has to this building and what an impact he has made over his teaching career here. We all wish him a speedy recovery and anticipate him returning to the team he is so very much a part of.”