Lincoln County volunteer firefighter Michael Hendershot got the emergency call during his niece's birthday party Tuesday night.
A sport utility vehicle had overturned in a nearby pond. A mother and two small children were trapped inside.
Hendershot, 27, knew the spot – just down the road from his home. He jumped in his car and floored it. In less than a minute, he pulled up to the pond and saw the four wheels of a Jeep Cherokee sticking out of chest-deep water. The vehicle's tail lights were still lit, casting an eerie glow.
“All I could think about was the victims,'' said Hendershot, a member of the North 321 Volunteer Fire Department. “I knew I had to get them out, quickly and safely.”
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About four minutes later, after groping around blindly under water, blood pouring from a cut on his nose, Hendershot had pulled two victims out of the wreckage and helped remove the other.
Other volunteers and EMS personnel arrived to help. None of the victims had a pulse when they were pulled out of the water, authorities said. But the woman and children were revived on the banks of the pond by rescuers who performed CPR.
The victims were flown by helicopter to Carolinas Medical Center. The mother, Chasity Spivey, 23, of Maiden died Wednesday. Her children, daughter Taylor Peyton, 5, and son John Peyton II, 2, were in critical condition.
According to the N.C. Highway Patrol, Spivey was following her husband, who was in a pickup, when she ran off the right shoulder of Gladden Road north of Lincolnton and overturned into the pond. The Highway Patrol would not provide any other details of the accident.
Hendershot gave this account of the rescue attempt:
When he arrived at the pond, he found Spivey's husband, whom authorities did not identify, in the water with another man.
Hendershot said the distraught husband had tried to get the doors open and had broken out a window with a hammer but had been unable to pull anybody out.
After learning where the children had been sitting, Hendershot went under the water. He entered the SUV through the broken window and felt around for the boy.
“I didn't find anything,” he said. “I came up for a breath of air.”
When he went under the second time, he opened his eyes. The mud and dirt stung so much he shut them tight again.
Feeling his way in the murky water, Hendershot found the boy in the rear of the vehicle, still strapped in a car seat. He unbuckled the seat, but the boy's clothes got tangled up and slowed progress.
After much tugging, Hendershot hit the seat release. And the boy came out – right into his arms.
Hendershot passed the youngster along to another firefighter.
Then a rescue truck arrived and pulled the SUV far enough out of the water that the back door could be pried open. That's where rescuers found the mother.
On Hendershot's third plunge under water, he located the little girl. He couldn't get her out and came up for air. On the fourth try, he was successful.
The rescue had taken only minutes. But looking back, he said, “it seemed like an eternity.”
As he'd gone in and out of the water, fellow firefighters had noticed blood running down his face. Hendershot had been unaware the vehicle's broken glass had gashed the bridge of his nose.
“He didn't let that bother him,” said North 321 Fire Chief Ronnie Williams. “He just kept on digging. He didn't let up.”
Williams said about 25 volunteers took part in the rescue, and “they all did an excellent job.”
Hendershot was taken to the Lincolnton hospital, where he got four stitches on his nose.
When he came home around 12:30 a.m., he had trouble getting to sleep.
“Every time I'd close my eyes, I'd see those kids and that lady,” he said. “I knew they were in the water, with no oxygen, and that their lives were in my hands. I couldn't make a mistake.”
The victims were still on his mind later that day. “I was sorry to hear the lady had died,” Hendershot said. “But I'm praying the kids will make it.”