Quick thinking turns teacher into lifesaver

A mere second can sometimes be the difference between life and death, and Michael West can attest to that. Early Saturday morning, an unfamiliarity with the area paired with heavy rains and a rising tide almost spelled disaster for West, when his Chevy Tahoe plunged into the water behind the Creekside Community in Millville. Fortunately, quick thinking by Deidre Nowak, a New York schoolteacher in town at the time, West escaped with his life.

Coastal Point: Emergency responders survey the scene of an accident at Creekside on Saturday, March 13.Coastal Point
Emergency responders survey the scene of an accident at Creekside on Saturday, March 13.

“I was eating breakfast at the time,” recalled Nowak, “and all of a sudden, I saw this car in the water.” Torrential rains along with melting snow from recent storms and poor visibility had risen water levels dangerously high. “I ran out there,” said Nowak, “and got right in the water. By this time, the [Tahoe] was almost completely submerged. I saw someone was in the front seat and I said to myself, ‘I can’t let this happen.’”

Realizing that the water’s pressure on the front doors of the car wouldn’t allow them to open, Nowak reached for the back door handle and helped a panicked West free himself from his seatbelt and the sinking SUV.

“Never in my life have I been thrown into such a scary situation,” said Nowak. “When I saw [Michael] in the car as I got up there, I saw the fear on his face. At that point, your adrenaline kicks right in. I couldn’t even feel if the water was cold when I jumped in - I’m sure it was - but all I was thinking about was getting him out before it was too late.”

Millville Volunteer Fire crews, including an ambulance and dive team arrived at the scene and tended to West and Nowak. Frank Bennett of Bennett’s Towing assisted with the retrieval of the vehicle from the water. “The tide was unusually high because of the storm,” explained Millville Fire Company Public Information Officer Bob Powell. “Sometimes, during hot weather and a low tide, you could walk from one side to the other, but this particular morning, the water was very high. Mr. West told us that he was unfamiliar with the area, and he had turned onto what he thought was another side street, but was in fact, a boat ramp.”

West and Nowak, two complete strangers, now share a common incident that neither will ever forget. “Something like this really makes you realize how precious life is,” said Nowak. “All it would have taken is a few extra seconds or a minute and [Michael West] might not be here. If I wasn’t standing up at that moment and happened to be looking out the window, who knows?”

Powell, who has devoted years to the Millville Fire Company and has taken on a wide range of roles and responsibilities, applauded Nowak’s quick thinking and selflessness in the rescue. “Deidre [Nowak] went above and beyond the call of duty,” Powell stated. “She should be commended and honored in many ways. There’s no doubt that if she didn’t rise to the occasion, Mr. West would not be with us today.”