ST. PETERSBURG — The stay-at-home mother was walking her 7-year-old son home from school Tuesday, a daily trek of about three blocks, when she heard tires screeching. A piercing crash. Someone screaming.
Michele Mason, who lives on 17th Way N, told her boy to go inside. She ran to the canal near 1735 77th Ave. N and saw two cars submerged. One had flipped over and sank upside-down in the murky water, which was about 6 feet deep. A 9-year-old boy bobbed near the wreckage.
"Right then," Mason said, "I thought, 'Aw, man. I'm goin' in.' "
Mason, among a quick-thinking group of good Samaritans, threw down her cellphone. She jumped in the water and helped pull out the boy, who looked dazed, but not injured.
But, she learned, his younger brother was still trapped inside.
Five cars, including an after-school karate bus with 11 children aboard, tangled in a chain-reaction accident about 2 p.m., just outside the access road to Sawgrass Lake Elementary School.
A woman with four children was driving a gold SUV east on 77th Avenue N and suddenly accelerated into the canal, knocking another car with a man and two boys into the water, St. Petersburg police said.
Minutes before emergency responders arrived, neighbors scrambled into the water. The children on the bus watched from the windows.
By the time Mason arrived at the canal, the father and his 9-year-old son were outside the car. But an 8-year-old boy remained underwater, strapped beneath a seat belt.
"The man kept diving under and coming back up," she said. "He was screaming, 'My son's in there!' "
A bystander tossed him a knife, Mason said. He cut the seat belt away and freed his younger son, who, by then, was blue and bleeding from his nose and not breathing.
Paul Acklin, a karate instructor who had come from his nearby studio, started helping with CPR on the 8-year-old. He learned resuscitation years ago as a Boy Scout but had never used it on a child.
"I started doing chest compressions and another woman gave him mouth-to-mouth," he said, still shaking. "Everyone helped. Thank God he started crying. It was the biggest relief when he started crying."
The man and his two boys, who officers have yet to publicly identify, were taken to Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, where by Tuesday evening they were doing fine, police spokesman Mike Puetz said.
"People went above and beyond," he said.
Charges are pending against the unidentified woman in the SUV, who suffered minor injuries and was taken to a local hospital, he said.
The children in the SUV were not injured, officials said.