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Departments : Officer of the Month

Border Patrol Agent Retrieves Two Children from Submerged Vehicle

Border Patrol Agent Travis Creteau has been selected as the Officer of the Month for May 2013.

May 01, 2013  |  by - Also by this author

Photo courtesy of Travis Creteau
Photo courtesy of Travis Creteau

Border Patrol Agent Travis Creteau was able to retrieve two little girls from a fully submerged vehicle after it crashed into a San Diego-area reservoir. Unfortunately, the children did not survive. For his efforts, agent Creteau has been named the May 2013 Officer of the Month by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

Agent Creteau had been on shift for about an hour when frantic bystanders flagged him down next to the Otay Lakes Reservoir on the evening of Aug. 5, 2012. They told him an SUV was under water and two children were trapped inside. The two adult occupants had been able to get out. But the female driver's daughter and the male passenger's daughter, both 5-years-old, were still inside.

Creteau couldn't see the vehicle because it was so deeply submerged, but that didn't slow him down. "I called it in and requested emergency services and took my gear off and jumped in the water," he says. He swam to the wreck, where other concerned citizens were standing on the car, marking its position.

"I had to ascertain where the front and the back was, and which side to go into, because it was completely submerged upside down," says Creteau.

A major hindrance to the agent's rescue efforts was the murkiness of the water. Both above and beneath the surface, it made it difficult to see where to enter the SUV. "There was zero visibility," he says. "I tried to open my eyes a couple times and I got dirt and stuff in them, so I stopped opening my eyes and just did it all by feel."

Creteau had difficulty opening the doors underwater. He was told later that it was because the tops of the doors had settled into the mud on the bottom. All he knew at the time was that it was costing him precious minutes. He was first able to open one door and feel the arm of one girl who he could tell was strapped in a booster seat. It took him three dives down, but he was able to get out his knife, cut the restraints, pull her out, and bring her to the surface.

The agent had given his knife to a volunteer to hold as he retrieved the girl, but then when he handed the girl over to be taken to shore, the man pitched the knife into the water to grab hold of her. Creteau had another knife on hand, which he planned to use to free the other child.

He tried to enter the rear door on the other side of the vehicle, but the door had only been opened a few inches. He couldn't gain access that way, but when he reached his arm inside the narrow gap he couldn't feel a child there in any case. He went back to the other side of the car and entered. "I had to go completely into the vehicle probably three different times before I finally found her," Creteau says.

It appeared the girl still underwater was not strapped in, which made locating her difficult. Once he found her, the agent had to cut some sort of belt or cable tangled around her and finally bring her to the surface. He handed her off to another helpful citizen to take her to shore.

"I had no energy left at that point," Creteau says. "I was just bearhugging one of the tires so I could rest."

He watched volunteers performing CPR as everyone waited for emergency responders to arrive and only rested as long as it took to regain enough strength to return to shore. "I felt compelled to go over there and continue to help," Creteau remembers. "So then I swam to shore and took over CPR on the first girl until I was relieved by EMS."

Once he was relieved, his supervisors told him to go home and change before returning to the station. "It was really difficult for me when I came back to work about an hour later for the debriefing and they informed me that neither one of them had made it. That was the hardest part," says Creteau.

What best helped him deal with the aftermath was an informal gathering over dinner that the Chula Vista Fire Department put on where every emergency responder involved in the incident—Creteau, fire personnel, divers who cleaned up the wreck, and investigators—was able to discuss the incident. "To hear everyone's different stories and sides to what had happened, that was helpful," he says.

When asked what advice he would give other law enforcement officers in a similar situation, he says, "Every situation is different and they're all dynamic, so just be prepared for anything at all times."

His experience swimming while growing up in the lakes region of New Hampshire certainly contributed to his ability to navigate the murky waters, as did the extensive three-week water training program during the Border Patrol Academy. But he also followed the advice to carry more than one knife, a rule that's ingrained in all Border Patrol recruits and was crucial to his retrieving the girls from the water. He was as prepared as he could be.

"It's difficult for me to receive an award for this, because I'm mainly hung up on the outcome," says Creteau. "But everyone tells me that the outcome isn't the issue; it's that I did everything that I could to save them, and that's the important part. So that's what I have to tell myself."

Comments (10)

Displaying 1 - 10 of 10

Renee @ 5/3/2013 4:52 AM

Great effort Border Patrol Agent Travis Creteau...wishing the outcome has been better, but take comfort in knowing you did everything you could. Sometimes life happens.

Seth @ 5/3/2013 5:46 AM

Agent Creteau, your bravery and courage are highly evident. Your ability to throw yourself in harm's way to help others is admirable. The people of the United States are blessed to have you as a public servant. You did all you could. Honor First

Ryan @ 5/3/2013 5:47 AM

Great job fellow officer! You are still a hero for your efforts.

Michele @ 5/3/2013 7:22 AM

You are a good human being. You never relented and gave it your whole heart...your story brought me to tears. Any Officer would be lucky to have you as a partner. Keep up the good fight, and thank-you...

Karen @ 5/3/2013 8:46 AM

Outstanding Job Travis! You did all you could and you got those girls out of that wreck. Thats what you set out to do and you did it!! The rest was left up to a higher power. Stay safe out there bro.

Paul W. @ 5/3/2013 9:15 AM

Agent Creteau, with nerves of steel you risked your life to try to rescue two young lives that day. Some may say that this is your job. I say you are an outstanding Agent! At a given notice we never know what could be thrown our way and you responded without hesitation. THANK YOU!!!

Lynn T. @ 5/7/2013 11:27 PM

THANK YOU FOR YOUR GREAT EFFORT Border Patrol Agent Travis Creteau. My late brother did the same thing back in Dec. 1983 on Hwy 101 in WA. He dived 2 times into the 43-degree water to get 2 children (20 months & 5 yrs old) from the back seat. Those children didn't make it either, after being taken to the hospital. My brother (an Olympic National Park Ranger) was honored as North Olympic Peninsula Law Enforcement Officer of the Year "for outstanding service to the people of the Peninsula through exceptional performance of duty." Don't dwell on the outcome AGENT CRETEAU, YOU TRIED YOUR BEST and the parents of those 2 children know that!

Nichole @ 5/8/2013 4:33 AM

A commendable job and my deepest sympathies to Agent Creteau. I can only imagine the heartache you must feel after such a valiant effort.

As for the parents... what were you doing on shore? I can't help but think that, if my daughter was trapped in a submerging vehicle, that I would be out there until I drowned myself trying to get her out. You wouldn't find me on shore waiting for police.

I sincerely hope this doesn't turn out to be a homicide.

Sue Jorgensen @ 5/8/2013 6:46 AM

As a career Firefighter and a Mom I commend you. I wish I could give you a hug. These types of calls in my experience are the hardest and most heartbreaking. You did everything you could to bring them back alive. Now for the hardest part, the little bit in the back of your brain that says could I have done more, been faster, smarter etc. The truth is in the logic, we can not save them all be gentle with yourself, My thoughts and prayers go with you and the families of the children.

Hugh Brien @ 5/20/2013 8:50 AM

Well done,Agent Creteau!!

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