Tacoma woman doesn’t wait for others before helping upside-down driver

Melissa Finnell knew help was on the way Saturday afternoon when she saw a car stuck upside down in a North Tacoma pond.

She just wasn’t certain that an emergency crew would arrive in time to keep the stranded driver from drowning in shallow water.

That’s why Finnell, 49, took matters into her own hands to rescue an elderly woman who had lost of her control of her car and wound up in a storm water retention pond in the 1900 block of North Pearl Street.

Finnell was the first person to break into the flipped car and crawl inside to release the driver from a seat belt that had pinned her upside down for as long as 45 minutes before anyone noticed the accident.

“There was nobody around,” Finnell said Monday. “It was really odd that a car could crash through a fence with no one noticing in the middle of the day. It was kind of surreal that way.”

For her quick action, Tacoma police are crediting Finnell with easing the rescue of the 84-year-old driver.

“I think it’s incredible that a citizen just hearing a horn will go to investigate and wade through water to assist someone,” said police spokeswoman Loretta Cool, echoing a report written by a sergeant who investigated the accident.

According to police, the driver was treated over the weekend for hypothermia. She had been stuck soaking in cold water, but was reported doing well.

“She was fine,” Finnell said. “She was really uncomfortable and she was distressed, but she was fine.”

The driver told police her foot slipped in the car, causing her to hit the gas pedal and crash through a fence that circled the pond.

Finnell happened on the scene after withdrawing cash from her bank. She noticed a couple people hollering at the edge of the pond. When she went to look herself, she was startled to see the upside down car and hear intermittent honking from the vehicle.

Another woman called 911. Finnell grabbed her metal steering wheel lock and waded into the pond to see how the driver was doing. She broke the passenger side window to get inside.

“The cab is full of water,” she said. “I’m crawling around on my belly and it’s cold. I got her seat belt, and then she just kind of settled down into the bottom of her vehicle.”

They waited together inside the car until a Tacoma Fire Department crew was able to retrieve the driver.

“I just held her hand and talked to her,” Finnell said. “She was glad somebody saw her.”

Finnell’s detour delayed her. That day, she had planned to buy an antique sewing machine. Covered in mud, she called her vendor to say she’d be late for their appointment.

“You’re not going to believe what happened,” she told him.

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