Samaritan saves accident victim's life on Merritt Parkway

After volunteering all night at a friend's telephone answering service in Queens, N.Y., some fresh bagels from Just Bagels were an early morning treat for Lucia Palmieri. She got two big bags for her family waiting back in Westport and she began the drive home amidst treacherous road conditions.

More than four hours and one saved life later, the bagels -- or what was left of them -- made their way home.

To get out of Queens and back to Westport, Palmieri took the Hutchinson Parkway leading into the Merritt Parkway. With the heavy snow, the highest speed she could get to in her Kia Sportage was 30 miles per hour. The roads were packed with cars and the snow was relentless. A couple hours later the road would shut down completely.

At about 8 a.m., her day really began.

The SUV in front of her started to fishtail on the slippery roads. Out of control, the vehicle veered off the parkway, over a steep incline and into a half-frozen pond.

"It was like slow motion," said Palmieri. "There was nothing I could do."

Instinctively, Palmieri pulled over and so did two other vehicles. She said one lady was more concerned about any damage that may have occurred to her car. The lady checked her car, muttered a string of obscenities and was on her way. Meanwhile, Palmieri and a well-dressed man in a suit and coat surveyed the damage.

A steep incline, a wall of overgrowth and icy half-frozen water separated them from the victim. There could be kids in the car, thought Palmieri. She knew something had to be done.

The well-dressed man said that the driver was probably dead. Palmieri wasn't going to settle on that assumption.

"I said to the guy, `We just have to sit on our butts and slide down the hill.'"

The man was less enthused with that idea.

"I'm not going down there," she recalled were the man's words. "`You're out of your freaking mind.'"

The next few moments are a hazy blur to Palmieri. Adrenaline kicked in, and she didn't even feel the pain of sliding over heavy brushes and stepping into a slushy pond full of mud and reeking odors.

She remembered calling 9-1-1 once she made it down the hill, but not being able to get through to anyone. Before she trekked into the water, she told the guy at the top of the slope to be useful. She threw her phone -- a prized possession of hers -- to him so he could stay on the line and phone in for help.

She made her way to the car, and although the thigh-high cold water was like "stabbing knives" to Palmieri, none of it really registered at the time. The fact that she was missing her shoes was also an afterthought. She had to get to that car.

Palmieri made her way to the driver, a woman in her 40s, and tapped on the window. The lady was visibly confused. Her exhaust pipe was submerged, and dangerous emissions were coming inside the vehicle. The lady did not know what was going on, but Palmieri had her open the window and turn off the vehicle.

Soon after, two young men came down to help her. Eventually, they managed to get her out of the car, saw that there were no passengers and began the trek back up the hill to the road.

"We get her up to the top of the hill and I realize my jacket is torn," said Palmieri. "I lost my shoes. I'm soaking wet. It's freezing cold."

She barely remembers the specifics of what transpired as soon as she began her rescue, but afterward she realized she must have gotten the idea to slide down the hill from the Westport Fire Department. Her father died in a car accident on Cross Highway seven years ago, and that's how the firefighters were able to reach him.

The snow was still barreling down as Palmieri, the two guys and the victim made their way back to the road. She had a spare blanket for the lady -- who had started to come to now that she was away from the emissions -- and cranked up the heat in her car.

As they warmed up in the car, Palmieri chatted with the stranger she had just saved (she did not want to be interviewed for the story). It turns out she was an accountant on her way to work when she veered off the road. Back home, she had three kids and a husband.

Emergency workers from the Scarsdale, N.Y., police and fire department soon arrived. The fire department shift began at 7:45 a.m. and that was already the second call they had.

Capt. Mathew Mann of the Scarsdale Fire Department was on the scene of the accident early Thursday morning. He speculated there could have been several different scenarios if Palmieri had not stopped and made her way down the hill. The worst of which would have been for the driver to continue inhaling the fumes. Eventually, he said, she could have died.

"[Palmieri] was pretty amazing, really," Mann said.

To her, it wasn't anything amazing, but she was proud of what she did.

"I just feel like it was the right thing to and anybody should have done it," she said.

Never before had she had to react so quickly amidst so much danger. There was one moment a while back, and she admits it doesn't even compare. She's the lead soprano for the New York Grand Opera and was giving a performance when she had to think quickly.

"A piece of scenery didn't come down right," she said. "This is the closest thing to it. I just remember I walked out on stage and stayed in character. Nothing else has ever happened like [the accident]. Never."

However, quick instincts do run in the family. Palimieri's grandfather, Joe Valiante, has his name etched on a plaque at the Saugatuck Fire Station. Her uncle, also named Joe, was the assistant chief of the Westport Fire Department. Other family members have also taken up the profession.

"She did tell me that," Mann said. "Something must have rubbed because she definitely was a person of action."

The lady rescued from the vehicle, while shaken up, was healthy enough to be taken home by her husband. The well-dressed man who didn't follow Palmieri departed long before. Emergency workers and Palmieri remained on the scene as a heavy-duty towtruck pulled the crashed vehicle back on the road.

The emergency workers were out in the cold as the car was towed, so Palmieri came up with a tasty morale booster for all of them.

"I took the bagels out of my car and I shared bagels with all of the firefighters and all of the police officers,"she said.

They were hesitant at first since they were on duty, but they soon accepted it since many were just waiting for the tow to finish. For Mann, the gesture was very welcome.

"Warm bagels. Not just bagels. They were hot," he said. "I was calling her that woman's guardian angel."