GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Thursday was shaping up to be an ordinary day for Rhonda Terwilliger, until the car behind her drove off into a ditch.
Terwilliger, 33, had left her home in Smithville and was driving north on Moss Mill Road a little after 9 a.m. The certified nurse’s aide had planned to drive to Hammonton to check in on a student for whom she set up a medical internship.
She glanced into her rearview mirror. The car behind her suddenly veered left, crossed the oncoming lane, smashed into a guardrail, flipped up, hit a pole and went nose-down into Morses Mill Stream, which crosses under the road.
“I saw her go off the road,” Terwilliger said. “Her car flew into a utility pole, and then it went head-down into the creek.”
“I turned around, I called 911 and pulled over,” Terwilliger said.
She walked to the car. Something, either smoke or steam, was pouring out from under the hood. The nearby utility pole was badly cracked. She then went into the creek and waded knee-deep into the water. It was cold, and the air, about 40, wasn’t much warmer.
Terwilliger said she saw the driver, Katie Seaver, 22, of Smithville, and her 4-year-old son were both belted into the car.
Seaver’s face and neck were bruised. She was alert and responsive, but her pupils were dilated.
“I kept reassuring her, ‘Let me take your son,’” Terwilliger said. Seaver handed her the boy.
By then, other cars had stopped, and Terwilliger said she gave the boy to a man standing nearby, who handed him to another woman.
“He was cute. He didn’t even cry,” Terwilliger recalled. “God bless that little boy.”
Next, she asked Seaver to stop the car engine and coaxed her out.
Terwilliger helped Seaver out of the passenger side of the car and up the embankment.
A couple of other drivers were also there, and the first police and medics had arrived. She said one police officer told her she was surprised: She expected the driver would have to be cut out of the car.
“They asked me a couple questions, and they let me go,” Terwilliger said. And where did she go?
“I went home and changed,” she said.
On Friday, she explained, “I would have done it for anybody. The accident was mind-boggling. I don’t know how they survived that. I really don’t know.”
Terwilliger, who previously worked for a decade in the trauma unit of AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, said she has saved someone’s life before: Her mother-in-law was choking on a piece of chicken, and she performed the Heimlich maneuver.
Galloway police Sgt. Donna Higbee confirmed Terwilliger’s account, adding the fact that she went in almost waist deep to rescue a stranger on a cold January morning.
Seaver could not be reached, but her sister Jessica Seaver, 31, of Egg Harbor City, said her sister was doing well. She was taken to a hospital immediately afterward, and tests did not reveal any serious problems. Jessica Seaver said she was grateful that Terwilliger was there to help her sister.
“My sister’s good. She’s doing good,” Jessica Seaver said. “She doesn’t have any bruising or anything like that.”
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