Underwater: A Toledo man’s brush with the Iowa River

It can happen to anyone.

The Toledo man who had his car sucked into the Iowa River May 31 said it wasn’t hubris or bad driving that led to the ordeal. It all happened so fast; he didn’t have time to correct himself. Before he knew it, water was seeping through the doors, and he was escaping through the window to avoid drowning. He said he was more embarrassed than scared.

Colten Quigley, 19, had just finished his shift as a server at the Tremont Grille. It was just after 3 p.m., and he had agreed to help a co-worker move into her mother’s place after work. The co-worker, Ranae Wilson, was unsure all her stuff would fit into the 2007 Saturn Vue Quigley shared with his mother.

“I don’t know how he got it all in there,” she said. “He’s a go-getter.”

Unbeknownst to Wilson, Quigley had also agreed to give another friend a ride to Madrid to escape some family tumult before his 5 p.m. shift at the restaurant next door. He never mentioned the obligation to her.

Quigley’s mother, Chris Quigley, said Colten is always offering to help, even when it’s to his detriment. He often over-schedules himself to help those he considers friends.

Colten admitted he was in a hurry that day, but said it was simply a fortuitous turn of events that led to his SUV ending up nearly submerged in the Iowa River along P Avenue.

Colten lives with his mother in Toledo, and he was heading home before going to pick up his friend. When he tried to take Highway 63 to get home, he saw a roughly milelong procession of cars. The street was closed. He needed to find another way to head east toward Cedar Rapids.

He took a detour, heading down 360th Avenue. Because Chelsea was basically under water, he planned to turn north and get on Highway 30. Colten said he knows the gravel roads in the area well. He tried to reroute eight times. When he couldn’t, he turned down P Avenue.

Wilson and another co-worker recall how, just a few hours before, Colten had been talking about drivers being caught in floods.

“That’s doesn’t really happen,” they said Colten told them. “There are always ways to get around it.”

When he got to P Avenue, Colten drove past a “road closed due to flooding” sign. He said he thought the sign was outdated and road crews simply forgot to take it down. By time he realized the sign was not a mistake, it was too late. His SUV crept along the road, its tires shirking off the 6 inches of water near where he entered. Ahead, he could see the water deepened, so he shifted his SUV in reverse and went to turn around, deciding the area looked too treacherous. That’s when things went wrong.

When Colten put the SUV in reverse, his front passenger side tire veered from the road, perhaps hitting a pothole or the cusp of a ditch. That was all it took for the strong Iowa River current to clutch his SUV and yank it into its depths.

The cabin slowly began filling with water. The only thought in his mind was making sure his cell phone stayed dry so he could call 911. He rolled down the window and inched to the edge, planning to grab hold of a low-hanging branch of a young oak tree. Just before he exited the SUV, he reached back to grab one last thing. Not the $150 GPS stowed in the SUV. Instead, he reached for a trucker cap with Jack Skellington – from “A Nightmare Before Christmas” – emblazoned on its foam front. He didn’t even have time to switch over the ignition to shut off the SUV before it sank.

Soaking, with his cell phone above his head to keep it dry, Quigley reached out and grabbed the branch, scratching his right hand as he fumbled to hold the cell phone comfortably while supporting his weight against the branch. Within 30 seconds, the Iowa River had swallowed all but the top of the SUV’s roof.

“I am going to be in so much trouble,” Colten thought.

He called 911. Bad reception caused the call to drop. Seeing that the SUV had come to rest against the tree, he decided to hop over onto its roof and try again. This time, the call connected.

Iowa State Trooper Matt Schwenn, who would later cite Colten for failing to obey a posted traffic control device, said Colten is lucky he even got reception. The area is somewhat dicey.

Colten hung onto to the branch, with the help of the mostly submerged SUV, for 45 minutes before Tama County firefighters cruised out with a pair of motor boats and rescued him.

Grinnell Fire Chief Dan Sicard said his guys were preparing to assist from the south side of the river when radio traffic informed them Tama first responders had retrieved Quigley using the boats.

The Chelsea Fire Department was also on scene along with the Iowa State Patrol, Tama and Poweshiek county sheriff’s offices and Tama Ambulance – a total of more than 20 people.

Stuart Eisentrager, deputy fire chief for the Tama Fire Department, said his department has not had an incident in that stretch of the river, which sits near Long Point Landing, during his employment with the fire department. Firefighters had planned to tie three rescuers to one another to reach Colten but opted against it. He said they didn’t even try to get to Colten; they just followed protocol and sent out two boats.

Afterward, Colten spoke to a man that lives near the river. He told Colten that, had he driven just a little farther, he wouldn’t have been so lucky.

“It was just river. That next mile-and-half was just river,” Colten said.

Now that he was safe, he had to break the news to his mom.

Chris Quigley was having dinner with a fellow South Tama High School employee at Toledo’s only Mexican restaurant, El Campesino Mexican Grill, when her cell phone rang. It was Colten. He told her she needed to come home; he had something to tell her.

“You are probably going to be angry with me, and you are probably going to think I was being really stupid,” Colten told her.

She figured he had been fired from his job. She never expected that he had totaled the SUV. She hurried home. When she arrived, Chris was slightly annoyed that Colten had pressed her to come home quickly. He wasn’t even there yet, she thought. The driveway was empty.

Once inside, she found Colten standing in the kitchen, wearing nothing but his underwear. Spread out to dry on the kitchen table were the contents of his wallet. She was dumbfounded. It took her more than a few moments to process the gravity of the situation. When it finally sunk in, anxiety washed over her.

After a slew of birth defects took Colten’s 2-year-old brother from her in 1999, and after a heart attack killed Colten’s father two years ago at age 48, she couldn’t bear the thought of losing her son.

“You could have died,” she told him. “You could have died.”

Colten explained what happened; his mother wasn’t mad, especially because she knows he isn’t the kind of man who takes stupid risks. Anyway, she said, he was already beating himself up about it.

Although the insurance adjuster will be unable to get an estimate on the damage to the SUV until the flooding recedes, Colten’s inability to shut off the engine ensures extensive electrical damage, making it all but certain the SUV is totaled. They had only had it two years.

But the Quigleys didn’t go long without a vehicle. A friend loaned the two her minivan: a benefit of living in a small town, Chris said.

“People don’t even wait for you to ask, they just give,” she said.

Colten calls the van a “mommy missile.”

Getting out of the situation with nothing more than a scratch on the hand and a $190 fine isn’t so bad, Colten said. Overall, he feels lucky. Had he driven a little farther, he would have driven straight into a murky abyss. He managed to get cell phone service in a spotty area. The SUV came to rest in an area where he could safely stand on it.

The only regret he has is the emotional strain it put on those who aren’t as light-hearted about the situation as he is. But he is glad people can laugh about it. His friends and co-workers haven’t stopped teasing him since it happened. One of them saw the segment on the local news. Not long after, Colten’s phone buzzed, indicating he had a new text message: “I’m going to tape this and play it at your wedding,” it read.

“Great,” Colten said. “It’s the icing on the cake, and the cake already tastes pretty bad.”