Tom Sandoval says he wasn’t being reckless. He didn’t try to show off.
The 52-year-old Hummer owner, who lives with fellow construction workers in west Santa Rosa, was simply headed out to get groceries.
Driving his raised “baby” of a vehicle in stormy weather Monday around 1 p.m., Sandoval came upon what looked like shallow water near the intersection of Hall and Sanford roads. He eased one shiny, 20-inch wheel into it and slowly kept going, thinking he could make it across the flooded area without so much as a splash on the immaculate silver paint job.
But he thought wrong. Before he knew it, Sandoval sank in water up to his hood. He tried to back up and the engine died.
That’s when the more than 2-ton vehicle started to float.
Sandoval panicked as water rushed in around the door edges, quickly filling up the front of the passenger compartment.
“I thought I was going to drown,” said the Roseville native, who’s been working a job at the Santa Rosa Plaza for the past few months. “I really did.”
Sandoval couldn’t open a door so he scrambled into the back, which was still dry, and called 911. He also grabbed a survival knife in case he had to break a window to get out.
Emergency dispatchers stayed on the line with him while the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office helicopter was summoned. The cold, soaking wet man waited for about 20 minutes until he heard the chopper overhead.
A deputy came down to him at the end of a long line.
“It was a huge relief,” Sandoval said.
The deputy pried a door open and pulled him out. Sandoval was hooked to the line and hauled to safety.
“They put a little harness on me and took me to the end of the road,” he said.
Sandoval isn’t alone in getting stuck on flooded Sonoma County roads.
CHP Officer Jon Sloat said dozens of people, including people in higher-clearance trucks, became stranded in this week’s storms and had to be rescued. It happens a lot when it rains, especially in rural west county and Sebastopol, along the Russian River and in the Alexander Valley.
Sloat’s advice to people who encounter swamped roads? If you can’t see through the water to the bottom, don’t cross.
He suggested Sandoval had only himself to blame.
“As much as it floods out there, anyone using commons sense shouldn’t need warning signs,” Sloat said. “It’s pretty obvious.”
Sandoval was accused of driving past road closure signs and bragging to bystanders about his off-roading prowess. Sloat said it was a dangerous move that tied up 21 emergency responders and the helicopter.
“It was a huge waste of resources,” he said.
But Sandoval insists there were no signs and he didn’t talk to anyone.
“I think they are mistaking me for someone else,” he said.
Besides, he added, he’d never endanger his 2006 garage queen, which on Friday was still parked where he left it, ruined. He waded out in knee-deep water and grabbed his keys out of the ignition.