By Joe Beck
It took five blows with a tire iron but Christopher Moreland finally broke through the window of a submerged car and pulled one of its occupants to safety on the Morgan's Ford bridge late Saturday night.
The efforts of Moreland, 20, of Strasburg, and another man saved the life of Tony William Hatfield, 49. Minutes before, a 1995 Honda driven by Coty James Ferguson, 18, of Front Royal, had gone off the low-water bridge over the Shenandoah River. Ferguson and another occupant, Robert Allen Jeffries Jr., were pronounced dead later in the evening after being taken to Warren Memorial Hospital. Hatfield was the lone survivor.
Moreland, a former volunteer firefighter with the Toms Brook department, was one of several people involved in rescue operations and among the first on the scene.
In an interview Tuesday, Moreland said he had turned off U.S. 522 and was on his way to meet a friend on Shenandoah Shores Road when he saw lights in the water next to the bridge.
"I didn't know exactly what it was, but I knew it was unlikely that somebody would be out on the water," Moreland said.
He saw another car parked on the bridge as he reached the scene, Moreland said. After stopping his car, Moreland and another man, who had already arrived on the bridge in another vehicle, jumped into the water. A woman, who was with the other man, phoned 911, Moreland said.
Moreland said he doesn't know the name of the other man.
"He asked me if we should break the window, and I told him we either try to break the window and save one or two of them or all three will drown because we knew the car was submerged," Moreland said.
Moreland said the car was flipped over on its roof with only its undercarriage and wheels visible above the water. The water was up to his chest as he and the other man approached the car, Moreland said.
The water's depth and density made it hard to break the window with the tire iron, Moreland said. Finally, the glass gave way, and they were able to reach in and pull Hatfield from the Honda.
Moreland said his head was underwater for about a minute, but he didn't have any trouble rescuing Hatfield.
Asked if the occupants were wearing seat belts, Moreland replied, "They weren't wearing seat belts. If they had been wearing seat belts, we wouldn't have been able to get them out."
Hatfield was semi-conscious by the time Moreland and the other rescuer pulled him from the water, Moreland said, adding that Hatfield appeared to have found an air pocket in the submerged passenger cabin that allowed him to survive.
"We swam over to the side, pulled him out of the water and laid him on the bridge," Moreland said of Hatfield. "We turned him on his side, he spit out a little water and then he sat up."
Moreland estimated Hatfield had spent two or three minutes in the water. Moreland said a total of six or seven minutes passed before he and the other man managed to pull the other two victims onto the bridge.
"They were both unconscious when we pulled them out of the water," Moreland said, adding he performed chest compressions on Jeffries for at least 10 minutes before a sheriff's deputy took over.
Moreland said he also helped rescue crews with oxygen tanks and holding lights to illuminate the area. He didn't leave the scene until about 2 a.m.
Moreland said his training as a volunteer firefighter helped him overcome any uncertainty about what to do in an emergency like the one he encountered on the bridge.
"It wasn't all that bad," Moreland said of the psychological effects.
But later he admitted, "It was definitely an experience, especially when you're on a late night cruise and just planning to hang out."
The Warren County Sheriff's Office gave the names of four other civilians involved in the rescue efforts. They are: Justin Bates, Kaitlin Richards, Aaron Richards and Samantha Wright.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org