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."