Being “at the right place at the right time” was a theme that echoed Wednesday among the heroes of January’s dramatic rescue of a mother and her two daughters from a crushed sedan as it dangled precariously over a Highway 101 bridge after a devastating collision just south of Buellton.
Standing shoulder to shoulder on stage at the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott during Buellton’s annual State of the City Address, personnel from Buellton’s Fire Station 31, the Buellton area California Highway Patrol station, Navy Seabees from Port Hueneme, and Santa Maria Towing were recognized for their bravery in saving Kelli Groves, 36, her 10-year-old daughter Sage, and her then 11-week-old daughter Mylo.
Groves, a teacher at Del Obispo Elementary School in San Juan Capistrano, and her young daughters were extricated from their smashed BMW after it was struck by a truck Jan. 12 and slammed through a concrete bridge railing, where it teetered on the verge of plunging into the creekbed far below in the Three Bridges area south of Santa Rosa Road.
An empty gravel truck driven by Charles Allison Jr., 48, of Grover Beach, smashed into the BMW and through the guard rail, then plunged into the creek, killing Allison and setting the truck aflame.
The rescue, which received national and international attention, was aided by a group of Navy Seabees who were stuck in southbound traffic near the accident. They were able to use a huge forklift they were transporting to help prevent the BMW from sliding off the bridge.
Michael Penn, an attorney representing the Groves family, said they wanted to be at the event to thank their rescuers in person, but Kelli and Sage have yet to recover enough to travel.
The family sent their “sincere gratitude’ for the honorees’ “selfless action,” he said.
A week after the crash, Kelli and Sage, who suffered serious injuries and were airlifted by helicopter, were released from Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.
Mylo, who suffered only minor injuries and was taken from the crash by ambulance, was released earlier that week.
Each group received a proclamation Wednesday from Buellton Mayor Holly Sierra that said, “It is the job of emergency responders to rescue us when needed but on that beautiful January afternoon, rescue agencies went above and beyond and made sure that the teetering sedan did not fall over the bridge, that the children were safely removed, and that their mother was pulled to safety, and for that we commend all agencies who assisted in this rescue.”
Accepting the proclamations were Brian Gomez of Santa Maria Towing; Sgt. Tom Mullen and Officer Brian Rhodes of the CHP; Battalion Chief Woody Enos, Capt. Patrick Byde, firefighter-paramedic Jim Bass, engineer Greg Taylor and firefighter Cesar Martinez of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department; and Construction Mechanic 2nd Class Shawn Legg, Construction Mechanic 2nd Class Benjamin Mead, and Construction Mechanic 3rd Class James Winters of the 31st Seabee Readiness Group.
Three Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 3 are now deployed overseas.
Enos and Mullen received plaques from the Groves family with a photo of the Groves children.
The Seabees had received their plaque earlier.
On the day of the crash, Gomez was driving his tow truck back to Santa Maria after dropping off a vehicle in Santa Barbara and was about 200 feet behind the crash when it happened. He described the sight of the crushed sedan and the burning truck as “very surreal.”
“It looked like a movie,’ he said.
Gomez said he could hear Kelli screaming from inside the wreckage. He didn’t see the girls until they were pulled out about two hours later. He remembers her cries to “please get us out,” he recalled.
He called 9-1-1 and used a winch to stabilize the vehicle as much as he could.
In his conversation with Kelli, he assured her help was on the way and that the car was secure.
Responding to accidents is a part of the job, Gomez said, but this one will always stand out.
The Seabees group was returning to Ventura County from exercises at Fort Hunter Liggett, an Army base in Monterey County, Legg said.
It was their last haul of the day and they’d been delayed for two hours — if they’d been on schedule, they would not have been able to help.
More than a dozen personnel from the CHP were at the crash scene, Mullen said, among them officers from the Buellton and Santa Barbara stations, and from division headquarters in San Luis Obispo.
Enos thanked the city for the honor and praised all the people involved in the rescue.
A 17-minute video of the rescue is at vimeo.com/36314791.