Four-year-old Ryan Eschleman was trapped in Grandma’s car as it filled with the brackish, frigid water of the pond. On the other side of the rear window, a man pounded against the glass, desperately trying to break it.
Other would-be rescuers were in trouble nearby. A woman was floating, face-down. Under the water, a man was unconscious, unseen, and a valiant policeman also was struggling beneath the surface.
Ryan’s knuckles were white as he clutched the headrest of the back seat.
Now the water was almost up to his neck.
When accidents happen on television, they often happen in slow motion - orchestrated like a ballet.
But when accidents happen in real life, the world is helter-skelter. The most crucial minutes of Ryan Eschleman’s young life were like that. There were 17 of them in all, and they were filled with chaos.
In those few minutes, six men and a woman put aside thoughts of their own safety to try to save a 4-year-old boy. You could call them heroes, but heroism was not their intention; sometimes in life, valor comes uninvited.
It was 11:28 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 11 - a cool 40 degrees and sunny in this south Georgia town of about 16,000 residents.
Ryan’s grandmother, Peggy Cardona, was running late for work as a hair stylist at the Total Image: Take 2 salon. She had two minutes to spare. She eased her light blue 1990 Nissan Stanza into the employee parking area behind Tifton Mall.
The parking spot was on the border of a well-manicured, grassy 40-foot incline that ended at the edge of a pond - a catch basin for rainwater, 150 yards long and as wide as a football field.
The Nissan’s automatic gearshift was broken, so if she put it in park, it was impossible to change gears. She was used to leaving the car in neutral and setting the emergency brake. This time, she forgot.
Cardona reached to open the back door for Ryan when the car lurched forward and started to roll. It picked up speed as it moved down the slope. It slid effortlessly, almost gracefully, into the pond.
“Nana! Nana! Nana!” Ryan screamed. He craned his neck for a glimpse of Grandma. She was gone.
Devin Batten, 23, was in the stylist’s chair waiting for Cardona.
Next door, at Lee’s Nail Salon, 30-year-old David Pham was putting the top coat of burgundy polish on a freshly manicured hand.
They both heard the cry: “Help! Help! My car’s in the water and my grandson’s in there!”
He and Batten ran outside, where they met Pham’s 28-year-old sister, Charlene, who was arriving for work.
The three ran to the water and jumped in.
Behind them were Clint Fountain, 23, and Daniel Tucker, 22, stock clerks at the Winn-Dixie supermarket.
Fountain did’t even stop to take off his black jeans and heavy work shoes before he dived in. The cold water was like a vise around his chest.
Tucker watched - but only for a moment.
“I can’t swim real good,” he told Cardona. “But somebody’s gotta help that boy.” He waded slowly into the water and began dog-paddling toward the car, which was now sinking into 15 feet of water. He passed Pham and Batten, who had been overcome by the cold water and were heading for shore.
“Hey! Unlock the door! You hear me? Unlock the door!” Fountain screamed at Ryan. The water was rising to Ryan’s waist as the boy frantically pulled at the child-proof locks. Fountain’s fists pounded against the glass.
Dick McClung, 32, a supervisor at Belk’s department store, heard a commotion. He followed the cries and ran to the water.
His heart was pounding. There was a woman in a white shirt holding a hammer. No one knew where she came from. She was just there. She raised it as if to throw it toward the car.
“Don’t! Don’t throw it! You! Bring me the hammer!” Fountain screamed at McClung, who had already shed his sports coat. He gave no thought to his leather shoes, tie or pressed shirt and pants.
He dived in the icy water.
“Oh, Jesus. I’m not going to make it,” he thought, halfway to the car.
“Come on! Come on!” Fountain screamed.
By now, the car was tipped nose first in the water, only the rear window and trunk visible. The water had reached Ryan’s chest and was steadily rising.
McClung held the hammer out on his last two strokes to the car. Fountain leaned over and grabbed it.
Raising it above his head, Fountain brought the hammer down with every ounce of remaining strength, shattering the glass.
Cpl. Wendel Manning of the Georgia State Patrol heard the 911 dispatcher’s frantic call, and his car was there in moments.
He saw Fountain smash the glass. He also saw Fountain’s friend Tucker, struggling to stay afloat.
Manning jumped in, forgetting to remove his ankle holster.
In a panic, Tucker grabbed Manning and tried to climb on top of him, dragging them both under. Manning finally had to push Tucker away.
About the same time, passer-by Charlie Mock had stopped to see what “all the ruckus was about.” He saw a woman - Charlene Pham - floating face down. Mock jumped in and swam toward her.
He rolled her over, grabbed her by the neck and swam for shore. He was 15 feet from the bank when he felt something in the water. It was soft.
With his free hand, he reached down and grabbed. He came up with a handful of hair, then pulled Tucker’s limp body to the surface.
By now, Manning had caught his breath. He grabbed Tucker and headed for shore. As they neared the bank, others waded in and pulled them to safety.
When the glass shattered, water poured into the car. Fountain and McClung - the Winn-Dixie clerk and the department store supervisor - pulled Ryan out. He clambered onto Fountain’s back.
Fountain took three deep breaths and started to dog-paddle. McClung swam alongside. Helping hands reached out to bring them ashore.
Paramedics pumped Daniel Tucker’s chest for more than a minute before he spat up water and took a breath. He does not remember anything after wading into the water. He spent six days in the hospital with pneumonia.
Charlene Pham came to in the ambulance, unsure of much except that she had tried to help. Her brother rode with her.
Fountain and McClung walked past the paramedics, the firefighters, the onlookers. They headed for the Belk’s store, where they grabbed clothes from the racks. They changed, shook hands and went back to work.
Manning drove back to the patrol post and changed clothes. Batten went home, his hair uncut.
“Nana! Nana!” Ryan screamed, wrestling free of the paramedics. He ran to his grandmother, arms outstretched, tears streaming down his face.
“My coloring book!”
The water had claimed only the book and the car.
Two days later, most of Ryan’s rescuers came together again, this time for a picture. As Ryan clowned around with the hammer, they shook hands, laughed, retold their stories, and wondered at how heroism can visit average lives.
“You don’t think,” Fountain said. “You just do it.”
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