By Alex Lippa
---- — LONDONDERRY — They started off the day as six complete strangers. But day’s end, they were a team of heroes.
After Laurie Donofrio, 43, of Windham drove off Gilcreast Road and into Beaver Brook, five passers-by and a nearby resident immediately jumped into the water and rescued an unconscious Donofrio.
The six men pulled her from her black Toyota Camry and carried her to safety, all before first responders arrived.
“These men are the heroes in this call,” acting fire Chief Darren O’Brien said. “If it wasn’t for them, this would have been a significantly different outcome.”
Donofrio was heading north on Gilcreast Road just before 2 p.m. when her car hit a guardrail, rolled and landed on its roof in Beaver Brook.
Londonderry police Lt. Kevin Cavallaro said Donofrio suffered from some kind of medical event while driving.
“I was in my house and I heard this crazy noise,” said Doug Ball, who lives on Gilcreast Road. “I knew it wasn’t normal. I saw a tree waving back and forth, and I immediately knew it was an accident.”
Ball rushed out of his house and across the street. He was joined by Craig Dempsey of Windham, Mike Elliott of Derry, Bernie Rouillard of Windham, Jim Ornsteen of Londonderry and Robert Maiella of Derry. Each of them had pulled their cars over and immediately entered the water to rescue Donofrio.
The car was on its roof and Donofrio was submerged in the water. The men tried to open the passenger side door, which was the only one accessible, but the door was locked.
“I yelled to (Ball) to get a pry bar out of my truck,” Ornsteen said.
The men tried to pry the door open, but couldn’t.
They tried a different tactic.
“We knew we didn’t have much time,” Ball said. “The car was totally upside down and the water was up to the handles of the door. The only place she would have been able to breathe was where the feet were.”
So, the men worked together and began rolling the car up onto its side. A Camry weighs about 3,200 pounds.
“When we started rolling it, we saw that we were rolling her deeper and deeper into the water,” Ornsteen said. “So, we moved to the complete other side. By that time, we were able to muscle the car to where it is now.”
Their work had just begun.
One of the men took a rock and smashed the back window.
They crawled into the car, but when they got there, what they saw frightened them even more.
“We had to get her head out of the water,” Elliott said. “Her face was completely gray. She was unconscious and not moving.”
Ornsteen took his shirt off and gave it to Ball who used it to cover her face, while keeping her head out of the water. The men then tried to get Donofrio out of the car, but they couldn’t unbuckle her seatbelt.
“I took the knife that I always carry and cut the seatbelt once,” Ball said. “But then I noticed the other part of the seatbelt was around her neck and I cut that one right away. Once I did that, she gasped and coughed up water and started breathing. It was a big relief.”
The rescuers tried to get Donofrio out the door, but were stymied again. They smashed out the front window and pulled her through it.
The men took her to the streambank and put her down there. That’s when they heard sirens approach.
“I’ve always been told, move her as minimal as possible,” Ornsteen said. “Once we got her on shore, I knew we better just wait for the professionals to arrive.”
EMTs and firefighters responded just moments after and loaded Donofrio into an ambulance bound for Parkland Medical Center in Derry. Cavallaro said he didn’t believe her injuries were serious.
While Donofrio was being rescued, she told rescuers her husband had been driving the car. Water rescue teams went into the brook, looking for a second victim.
“She was confused at the time,” Cavallaro said. “We were able to get in touch with him and determined that he was not driving.”
Donofrio was in stable condition last night at Parkland Medical Center, according to a hospital spokeswoman.
Once she was bound for the hospital, her rescuers were treated for cuts on their hands and arms.
Despite their heroics, they were modest about what they had done.
“I didn’t even think twice,” Ball said. “I just went right in there and did what I had to do.”
Police were much more complimentary of the men.
“What they did made a huge difference,” Cavallaro said. “If it wasn’t for them, I think it’s safe to say we are dealing with another tragedy this week.”