Gatlena Lat figured he had a few minutes left to live.
The Lynnwood High School senior was driving home from classes Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 15, when his car hit a patch of ice, spun out of control and flipped over into a swampy ditch along Maple Road.
Water poured into the black 2000 Nissan Maxima. Lat, a 20-year-old Sudanese refugee, struggled to keep his head above the dirty, freezing water while he was trapped in his seat.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m going to die and that’s it,’” he said. “I couldn’t do anything.”
Other students leaving classes pulled over their cars to help him.
Alex Nguyen, 16, a junior, remembers getting his first glimpse inside the car that was embedded in mud. All he could see was the bottom of Lat’s jeans and his size 13 sneakers.
“I was pretty sure I was going to see a dead body,” he said. “I was pretty scared.”
Nguyen and classmates Justin Glanville, Jessica Anthony, Derek Bride, Tyler Elliott and other good Samaritans worked desperately to pry open the driver’s side just wide enough to pull Lat’s skinny 6-foot-3-inch frame from the car.
Lat was free by the time Snohomish County sheriff’s deputies arrived, said Rebecca Hover, a sheriff’s office spokeswoman. During the rescue, Glanville, 16, recalls hearing Lat’s gurgled calls for help.
Glanville, a junior, drew from lessons learned in a fire service technology course he is taking at school.
First, he assessed the situation and reminded himself to stay calm.
With the door open a few inches, he instructed Lat to be calm and to turn his head to the side. “Take slow, deep breaths,” he urged him.
Lat had managed to wriggle his body on his side and keep his eyes, nose and mouth above the water.
Glanville’s confident and reassuring words helped him through the ordeal, Lat said.
Elliott, 17, said the rescuers worked hard just to open part of the door a crack. They kept their fingers wedged in the door while they looked for tools to open it wider.
They tried a two-by-four, which snapped in half.
A tire iron was too small.
At last, they used a pole from a stretch of fallen-down chain-link fence.
With Glanville and Bride on top of the overturned car and Elliott, Nguyen and two men on the bank, they used the pole, teamwork and brute strength to widen the opening and cut Lat’s seat belt strap.
Anthony, 17, stood on the bank, urging her classmates to break out the car window. She was gearing herself up to give CPR.
They broke the car window, which proved critical, because it let some water out of the car and released pressure on the door, Bride said. It also provided a better angle to bend the door open.
“We basically ripped off the whole door panel,” Bride said.
When the students pulled Lat from the car, they were surprised to learn they had saved a classmate.
“I didn’t know it was Gatlena who was in the car until we pulled him out,” said Bride, who sat behind Lat in a marketing class last year. “When I saw it was him, I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ He’s a friend. I was scared and horrified. It just turned into a whole different thing. I just wanted him to be OK.”
Anthony was impressed with how her classmates handled themselves after the rescue.
“I was just really proud of them,” she said. “They were really humble about it. They didn’t go around bragging at school.”
Lat was forced to flee his homeland when rebels attacked his village in 2000. His family became scattered and he watched over his siblings and other relatives. He moved to the United States four years ago.
The idea that Lat could have escaped a civil war only to die in a ditch in Lynnwood just wouldn’t have been right, said Mary Dill, Lat’s foster mother.
“We are really glad we are celebrating this instead of planning a funeral,” Dill said. “I’m just real grateful for those kids.”
Eric Stevick writes for the Herald of Everett.