'Oh my God there's a child in that vehicle': Witness recalls coming across car on its side in watery ditch

New RCMP dashcams coming after previous ones discontinued

It was a terrifying experience finding an overturned vehicle partly submerged in the ditch and learning a young child was still trapped inside, says Bernice Pontanilla.

"Oh my God what do I do? That's what went through my head," Pontanilla said. "Oh my God there's a child in that vehicle and you just think to yourself, 'Oh my God.'"

Pontanilla was with her friend, Christine Holowich, and her friend's daughter, Annie Holowich, leaving Portage la Prairie on their way back to Winnipeg around 11:30 p.m. on Friday when they spotted a woman with a child in her arms on the side of East Saskatchewan Avenue.

At first Pontanilla said she thought the woman was just looking for a ride, but then in the darkness she spotted something in the ditch.

It was a car.

A 29-year-old woman has since been charged with impaired driving after she lost control of her vehicle and rolled into a watery ditch with an adult passenger and three young children inside.

"I'm still feeling really grateful that I was able to see this. I could make the faint outline, because it was so, so dark, but I could make the faint outline of a vehicle in the ditch," she said.

Pontanilla's friend turned the vehicle around to go see what was going on while they called 911. When they got a little bit closer, the headlights shone onto a vehicle lying on its driver's side in a ditch filled with water.

They also spotted another woman walking up the embankment with a child in her arms.

Pontanilla got out of the vehicle to check on the woman, who told her there was another child in the vehicle. Christine and Annie Holowich stayed on the phone with 911 and administered first aid to the first woman and child they spotted on the highway.

RCMP climb through broken window, cut child out of seat

As she was going to try and help, Pontanilla said an RCMP vehicle showed up on the scene and she told the officer there was a child in the car.

"He flew past me to just go and rescue that child and he did," Pontanilla said, adding two other officers quickly followed.

The officers could hear the child screaming from inside the vehicle, RCMP said in a Monday news release.

"Officers looked inside the vehicle and could see that an infant, still strapped to his car seat, was partially submerged in freezing cold water," the release said.

To save the baby, RCMP Const. Sean O'Keefe said two officers kept the vehicle stable while another took off his equipment and used the seats as stepping points to get to the child without hurting him.

The officer climbed into the vehicle through the broken front passenger side window.

"It just took somebody nimble enough to get inside. I imagine there was glass inside the vehicle, too," O'Keefe said.

Once the officer reached the child in the back seat he had to cut the one-year-old-infant free from the child seat, RCMP said.

Pontanilla said it was a huge relief when she saw the officers with the child.

"When all three of them emerged from the ditch climbing up with the child in his arms I just thought to myself, 'Thank God, thank God' and hopefully that child is OK," she said.

The infant was immediately taken to hospital, police said.

Pontanilla said she's grateful for the quick response of RCMP and paramedics.

"I really feel thankful right now that what I witnessed, there were no fatalities," she said. 

'Nightmare scenario'

O'Keefe said this type of crash isn't unusual. 

"Traffic collisions, especially where impaired driving is concerned — this is a nightmare scenario where children are involved, obviously," he said. "They're innocent passengers in a vehicle."

There were five occupants in the vehicle at the time of the collision: two 29-year-old women, one of whom was driving, and three infants, a two-year-old and two one-year-olds.

He said the water was reported to be between shin- and waist-deep.

"Our officers acted quickly that evening and saved a young life," said Insp. Rick Head, the officer in charge of the Portage la Prairie detachment, in the news release.

"This incident also speaks to the dangers of impaired driving, this could have resulted in a tragic loss of life. We are thankful that only minor injuries were sustained and that everyone has since been released from hospital."

RCMP have charged a woman from Portage la Prairie with driving while disqualified, impaired operation and failing to comply with probation.

She was scheduled to appear in court in Portage la Prairie later Monday and is not being named to protect the identities of the children involved.