NASA aerospace engineer helps rescue Hampton woman

  • Published
  • By Joe Atkinson
  • NASA Langley Research Center
Before Bill Leath heard the squealing tires, it was just an ordinary Wednesday morning.

He brewed a pot of coffee. He walked out front to grab the newspaper. Then he walked around back to check on his garden.

In his backyard, which overlooks Newmarket Creek in Hampton, Leath noticed that something -- probably an opossum -- had dug up some cantaloupe rinds from his compost pile. Not wanting the rinds to attract flies, he set about reburying them.

And that's when his morning went from ordinary to extraordinary.

"I just looked up because I heard the tires squealing," he said.

Leath, a Northrop Grumman aerospace engineer working for the Air Traffic Operations Lab (ATOL) at NASA's Langley Research Center, then watched as a car traveling southbound on Lasalle Avenue launched off the road and plunged upside-down and nose first into the creek.

He was stunned. It took his brain a few startled seconds to process what he'd just seen. Then it clicked: a person was trapped in that car.

"And the next thing I knew I was running," he said.

The 59-year-old Leath crossed more than a football field's worth of land, some of it marshy, at a near sprint. As he ran he could hear a woman calling for help. By the time he got to the water's edge, the car was in so deep he couldn't see anything more than the trunk. There was no sign of the woman, who he feared might still be in the car.

Leath, a former lifeguard and competitive swimmer, dove in.

Back on shore, Leath's neighbor, Jake Ehret, called out to him. Ehret had seen Leath run through his backyard and thought he might be chasing a burglar.

Out of breath, Leath flipped over onto his back and shouted to Ehret for help.

"I think he thought I was the one in trouble," Leath said. "He looked at me like I was crazy, like, 'Why are you swimming that way?' "

Then Ehret saw the car and jumped in to help.

Leath had been swimming for about a minute -- against the current -- when he looked up. Just a few feet in front of him, the driver of the car, who police would later identify as Hampton resident Dorothea Allen-Riley, was floating facedown in the water. Leath could see air bubbles in her clothes. He suspects the bubbles are what kept her afloat.

He grabbed Allen-Riley and pulled her close. Water spilled out of her mouth. She took a huge breath.

"I thought, thank God she's still alive," he said.

Now in about 8 to 10 feet of murky creek water, Leath and Ehret each took one of Allen-Riley's arms and swam back to shore with her, being careful to keep her head raised. With the current behind them, the swim was relatively easy.

Near the shore, Leath decided it would be best to keep Allen-Riley in the water and wait for help. She was clearly hurt. Blood and water were leaking from her mouth. He was worried that her spine might be injured. Dragging her onshore could be dangerous, he told Ehret.

Ehret looked up at his seven-year-old son, who was waiting in the backyard with a phone, and told him to call 911.

As they waited for emergency crews to show up, Ehret talked to Allen-Riley, hoping to keep her conscious. He asked her if anyone else was in the car. Much to Leath's relief, she said no.

Help arrived quickly -- police first, then medics. When Leath and Ehret handed Allen-Riley up to police, she was shaking violently. Leath thought she was suffering from a combination of hypothermia and shock. The last he saw of her, medical crews were carrying her away.

Thinking the morning's excitement was finally over, Leath went home to shower and get ready for work -- but work would have to wait.

"Before I could get out the door, the press descended on me like the 17-year cicadas," he said. "I got hit by all three TV channels and the Daily Press."

Stories of Leath's heroics spread fast and wide.

In the time since the accident, he says e-mails and calls have poured in from old coworkers and friends. A girlfriend he hadn't heard from in 15 years got in touch with him.

He's taken a good ribbing from his coworkers at NASA Langley, too.

"They were singing the 'Mighty Mouse' theme to me," he said.

Leath is just glad he was able to do something to help. Though he says he's "not overly religious," he can't shake the feeling that "someone" was watching over Allen-Riley that May morning. To him, it's "strange" that he happened to be outside when the accident occurred, and stranger still that he "swam right into that woman."

He laughs, though, when someone reminds him that it may very well have been a cantaloupe-craving critter that made the rescue possible.

"Yeah, that opossum," he said. "It was all because of him."