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Six local men save Windham woman's life in Londonderry

By April Guilmet, Union Leader Correspondent
April 19. 2013 11:55AM
Six local men are being hailed as heroes after coming to the aid of Laurie Donofrio of Windham who'd crashed her car into Beaver Brook when she experienced a medical issue Thursday afternoon. (COURTESY)

LONDONDERRY - A Thursday afternoon drive down a well-traveled road quickly turned into a life-or-death situation when six strangers came to the aid of a woman who'd crashed her car into Beaver Brook.

Police said Laurie Donofrio, 43, had experienced a medical issue causing her to lose control of her black Toyota Camry while traveling alone down Gilcreast Road shortly after 2 p.m. Thursday.

By the time emergency crews arrived on the scene, Gilcreast Road resident Doug Ball, along with motorists Craig Dempsey of Windham, Mike Elliot of Derry, Bernie Rouillard of Windham, Jim Ornsteen of Londonderry and Robert Maiella of Derry had freed the still-unconscious Donofrio from the submerged vehicle and pulled her to safety.

Windham resident Craig Dempsey said he drives that route regularly, and when he saw several cars pulled over near the Beaver Brook bridge Thursday afternoon, he wasn't initially alarmed.

'A lot of people fish in that spot,' he said.

But soon it became clear that all wasn't well.

'Next thing you know, I saw a car that was flipped over inside the water,' Dempsey said Friday morning. 'Three guys were down there too.'

Pulling his own car to the roadside, Dempsey didn't hesitate to join them.

The men tried to open the car's passenger door using a crowbar from Orsteen's truck, but to no avail. The driver's side door remained underwater.

Seeing Donofrio unconscious, underwater and hanging upside-down behind the wheel, Dempsey said they immediately realized time was of the essence.

'She wasn't in very good shape,' he recalled.

Fellow Windham resident Bernie Rouillard, who'd left work early for the day when he came upon the scene on the Beaver Brook bridge, said he saw several women standing on the bridge and heard someone yelling for a crowbar as he drove past, so he pulled over to investigate.

'I went right down there and joined the guys that were helping,' Rouillard said. 'We got in the water and began rocking the car side to side, hoping to get the cab area above water level.'

Rolling the car up on its side, the men saw Donofrio was partially out of the water, though she didn't appear to be breathing.

Using rocks from the riverbed, the men then smashed a back window to access the partially submerged car.

One of the men's shirts was used to cover Donofrio's face as Ball used his pocketknife to slice the driver's side seatbelt, untangling the portion of belt that was tangled around her neck.

With the car doors jammed again, the men smashed another window to pull Donofrio to safety.

'It was absolutely surreal,' Dempsey said. 'I'm just glad we were in the right place at the right time.'

Dempsey, like several of the other men said he sustained some minor cuts on his hands and fingers during the rescue, which he dismissed as 'nothing major.'

Carrying Donofrio onto the shore, the men made efforts to revive Donofrio as they waited for help to arrive.

'She was clearly having a medical issue- she was just coughing and gasping for air,' Rouillard said.

Londonderry firefighters arriving on the scene then took over. 'By then, they were able to converse with (Donofrio) and try to put together what happened,' said Rouillard.

Donofrio was transported to Parkland Medical Center in Derry where she was treated for injuries described as non-life threatening. As of midday on Friday, she remained in stable condition, hospital officials confirmed.

But local police and fire officials stressed the day's outcome 'could have been significantly more tragic' if the six local men hadn't stepped in to help.

'These guys were truly the heroes of the day,' interim Fire Chief Darren O'Brien said.

Bonded by an experience that could have easily turned tragic, it seems likely the men won't stay strangers for long.

"I know where a couple of them live," Rouillard said. "So I'm thinking I'll probably stop by to say hello sometime soon."

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