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Sailors rescue family after van is pushed from ferry

Mercedes driver hit the accelerator instead of the brake, ramming into the van so hard it went about 30 feet out from the dock, authorities and witnesses say.

January 13, 2012|By Mike Reicher
  • The Dodge rental minivan that was hit off the Balboa Island Ferry is lifted out of Newport Harbor. The family of four who were in it from Taiwan escaped injury, thanks to some quick responders.
The Dodge rental minivan that was hit off the Balboa Island… (DON LEACH, Daily…)

NEWPORT BEACH — The tide was just high enough to bring his wooden dinghy up to the seawall. Skip Staats likes to sit atop the wall and sip coffee in the morning sun.

Had it been any more shallow, he wouldn't have been relaxing next to the Balboa Island Ferry, and a visiting family of four from Taiwan could have drowned.

Staats, 46, rescued three members of the Chang family from their sinking Dodge minivan Friday morning after a Mercedes, driven by a Balboa Island resident, accidentally rammed it from behind.

Another passing fisherman pulled the fourth family member to safety.

After seeing the silver minivan fall into the harbor, he motored up to it and saw it was floating with the water up to its windowsills. As he approached the rear driver's side, he saw a girl, 6-year-old Ping Chung, strapped into a child's safety seat.

"Get the girl," her father, Kuo-Hsuan, 36, told him calmly from the front seat.

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"I thought, 'Oh my God, I hope she's easy to unbuckle,'" said Staats, a reserved surfer and sailor.

He lifted her straight into his tiny boat. The van was floating at an ideal depth — Staats' boat rails were in line with the windowsills. The minivan's windows were down because, like many families, the Changs wanted to fully take in the idyllic harbor view.

Staats then pulled the boy, 4-year-old Ko Chan, from his seat. Kuo-Hsuan, with Staats' help, came out last, crawling out feet-first from the driver's window.

By that time, Staat's tiny boat was full. Another fisherman who had also heard and responded to the crash, James Donoghue, took his place.

The mother had climbed over to the driver's side, said Donoghue, 47. He pulled the petite 37-year-old Lung-Hsn Chu into his roughly 25-foot open-bow skiff. Less than a minute later, the car sank about 15 feet to the bottom.

Donoghue said trapped air from the van shot violently to the surface.

The most amazing part of the rescue?

All the family members were pulled out completely dry, except for the mother, whose sneakers were slightly wet, Donoghue said.

The water temperature was just under 60 degrees.

Firefighters assessed the family and found they were all uninjured, Fire Department spokeswoman Jennifer Schulz said. Lifeguards also dove to the bottom to ensure there were no others trapped in the car.

Later, police drove the family to the rental car agency and they continued their vacation. The Newport Beach police unions also paid for a replacement rental car for the Changs, according to a news release.

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