Venice man recalls breaking van window in desperate attempt to save drowning victims

(Source: Eric M. Hilton)

VENICE, Fla. (WFLA) – News Channel 8 is learning new details about the last few moments inside a van as it sank beneath the water in Venice. 

For the first time, we hear from a man who broke open a window in a desperate attempt to pull them out.

(Source: Eric M. Hilton)

On Monday afternoon, Venice Police say a white van hit a park bench, backed up, and then sped into the jetty, quickly taking on water.

Brett Stephens, an experienced diver, jumped from shore.

“I just wanted to rescue these people and I wasn’t going to quit until we did,” said Stephens.

He used a special tool to knock out the back window. Inside were 64-year-old Carol Hayden and her father, 88-year-old Eugene Hayden.

“There was a look of horror in her eyes, I could see it, and the gentleman was very calm….She said, ‘Rescue my father!’, and the father said, and these were his only words that I heard, ‘you go first,’” Stephens said.

Stephens reached out his hand.

“We actually clasped hands, trying to lift [Carol] out, but I just didn’t have the strength to dead lift a woman with one arm,” he described.

“I don’t know if she was injured or if she was in shock,” he added.

Sadly, time ran out, and the van sunk into the murky water.

“We basically had to release the vehicle, because it was submerging and we didn’t want to get sucked under, but at that point, we were resigned to failure,” said Stephens.

Stephens shared his story to urge drivers to buy window breakers to escape from a sinking car. Hopefully, this story can prevent another tragedy.

“I was pretty shaken, I mean to watch that…I play it over and over, but you know, I gotta move on,” he said.

Venice police have not determined why exactly the pair drove the van into the water. They’re still investigating.

The pair lived at the Village on the Isle Retirement Community, and a candlelight vigil will be held there Thursday, May 11 at 7:30.

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