Life Saving Award

Two deputies for the Ward County Sheriff’s Office were honored Wednesday for saving the life of a submerged motorist near Sawyer on a chilly day in March.

Deputies Bill Miller and Ann Millerbernd were nominated for the North Dakota Peace Officers Association Life Saving Award by Sheriff Steve Kukowski.

“This was pretty heroic,” said Kukowski.

As Kukowski explained, the accident happened at about 3 p.m. last March 14 in a hilly area near Sawyer.

“Deputy Miller noticed a white Jeep in front of him veer into the left lane of traffic,” said Kukowski. “He noticed the vehicle approach two guide wires that protect traffic as it approaches a waterway and the vehicle’s break lights did not light up. Deputy Miller watched the vehicle drive through an opening in the guide wires and disappear down an embankment. Immediately a huge wall of water shot into the air.

“Deputy Miller pulled to the side of the road, activated his emergency equipment, exited the vehicle and looked down over the guide wire guard rail and he could see the vehicle upside down underwater after it had rolled down the hill. All that was visible from the vehicle was the very bottom of the doors, the undercarriage and both axles. Deputy Miller took off his duty gear, jumped into the water and at this point the water was up to his chest. Immediately, he heard a man’s voice yell, ‘help me!’ “

The situation grew more desperate by the second. First, Miller tried to open the vehicle’s back passenger door but couldn’t get it open. After he yanked on it over and over again, the door finally broke loose and opened, but only part way. Miller was able to squeeze his body through that narrow opening just enough to see that the car had only one occupant. But the man in the car was pinned by the rear seat, which was pushing his head under water. Miller lifted up the seat so the man could breathe and used his hand to hold the man’s face out of the water. Miller reassured the accident victim that they would get him out of there, but the man was trapped by his seatbelt.

“Deputy Miller held his breath and went under the water (and) grabbed the seatbelt,” Kukowski said. “”However, it was so tight around (the driver’s) stomach (that) he couldn’t move it. (Miller) then pulled out his knife and went under the water again, but it was so muddy that he couldn’t see to cut the seatbelt. He was also afraid that since there was no slack in the seatbelt then they may cut the (driver’s) stomach, so he didn’t try. (Miller) went back under the water again but still couldn’t see to cut the seatbelt. At this time about half of the driver’s face was above water.”

It was at this point that Millerbernd arrived on the scene. She ran down the grassy embankment and entered the water. There was a drop off right at the entrance of the water and Millerbernd was immediately up to her waist in the muddy water.

“Once she reached the vehicle, Deputy Miller explained that they needed to get the door open and that the driver was trapped in his seatbelt,” Kukowski said. “At this point Deputy Miller exited the vehicle and attempted to get another door open to try and cut the seatbelt and Deputy Millerbernd entered inside the vehicle. Deputy Miller handed Millerbernd his knife and she reached under the water and tried to cut the seatbelt but the seatbelt was so tight across (the driver’s) abdomen that she could not cut the belt. At this point the only portion of the driver that was out of the water was his nose and the right part of his mouth. Every time (the driver) opened his mouth to speak he was ingesting more of the water. Deputy Millerbernd positioned her body so that (the driver) was able to rest his head on her right knee and thigh. She used her right leg to push (the driver) so far to keep his head out of the water so that he could breathe. However, his breathing became labored.”

The fire department arrived just in time and pulled the Jeep out of the water with a cable. Rescue divers helped extricate the man from the vehicle.

Both Miller and Millerbernd were taken to Trinity Hospital in Minot and were assessed for hypothermia. Kukowski said the driver, who preferred not to be identified, was also treated and has recovered. The air temperature that day was 29 degrees, said Kukowski.

Millerbernd said the award was a great honor but the true heroes are the military service members who are serving overseas.