The Story of a Heroic Kayaker That Helped Save Family of 5 After SUV Flies Off a Cliff and Into a River

A family of 5 was driving along Highway 50 in California when their SUV veered off the road, hit a concrete mile marker, a large tree, and a boulder before plunging into the American River, Sacramento television station KCRA-TV reported.

Thankfully, a quick-thinking kayaker on the river came to the rescue.

“It was fortuitous that they didn’t actually land on me,” Mark Divittorio, a real estate agent, recalled. “I was kayaking right there moments before they plunged off the cliff.”

Not wasting a moment, Divittorio paddled to the scene of the accident and wrestled the three children out of the crumpled vehicle.  They had managed to unbuckle their seat belts, but it was clear the driver and his wife required far more help, he said.

This image provided by the El Dorado County Fire Department shows a crash site where an SUV veered off a road and ended up in the American river near Kyburz, in Northern California. (Photo: AP)
Authorities remove what remains of the family’s vehicle after it plunged off a cliff and into the river. (Photo via KCRA-TV)

After transporting the children across the rocky waters to safety, Divittorio went back to the terrifying scene, where he reportedly found the driver pinned upside down with his head partly underwater and the man’s wife struggling to hold his head up.

“I was afraid that if I would have cut the seat belt he would have died in front of me and his wife and his three kids,” Divittorio he told KCRA-TV.

But in the second miraculous coincidence of the day, a fire crew with swift-water trained firemen happened to be in the area for another call and was able to get to the scene within three minutes, Mike Pott, division chief of the El Dorado County Fire Protection District, told The Associated Press.  The average response time for such an emergency can be up to 15 minutes.

“We actually used a life jacket to put under the driver’s head and shoulders to hold his head up out of the water, while we were cutting the roof off the vehicle,” Pott said.

The fire crew was able to save both the husband and wife.

“He wanted to live,” the kayaker said simply.  “He wanted to be with his family.”

Mark Divittorio, a real estate agent who loves to kayak, describes the terrifying scene. (Photo via KCRA-TV)
Mark Divittorio, a real estate agent who loves to kayak, describes the terrifying scene. (Photo via KCRA-TV)

The driver of the vehicle, 50-year-old Christian Lemler of Livermore, suffered moderate to major injuries, but everyone else got away with only scrapes and bruises. The cause of the crash still under investigation, and it has not been determined how fast the SUV was going when it crashed into the river, or whether the rain was a factor.

The two adults and the two teens were wearing seatbelts, while the child was strapped into a car seat, Pott said.

“If they didn’t have their seatbelts on I’m sure they would have all been ejected,” he said.

Pott concluded: “All the circumstances came together…Several things came together to help save this family.”

Here’s more on the remarkable story, via ABC 13:

​The Associated Press contributed to this report.