accessibility & help

Sinking car rescue

Use dramatic photographs of woman’s rescue from a sinking car to help young people:

  • explore the different ways people react in an emergency
  • identify qualities they have which might enable them to help someone in need
  • think through what they would do if they were faced with an incident of this kind, and
  • discuss the benefits of planning and practising for emergencies, alongside the ability to react and improvise in scenarios which, like a sinking car, are much rarer and can’t be foreseen. 


Learning objectives

By the end of this activity young people will be able to:

  • Identify the ‘qualities of a helper’ and decscibe what they could do to help someone in an emergency situation
  • Describe what happens when a vehicle is submerged under water and why it is important to act quickly
  • Consider different factors which might influence the decision to help another person who is in extreme danger.


Every second counts

Say to the group that they are about to see a photograph. But just for five seconds. So they'll need to be alert if they want to assess what is happening.

Show the photograph for a count of five.

Rescuers plunge into the water to save a woman whose car went into the water at Northcote Point on February 17 2015 in Auckland New Zealand North Shore Police constables Paul Watts and Simon Russell say they were just doing their job © Info

Remove it from view and ask young people to say what they think is happening.

Discuss what they remember seeing. A rock held aloft, a car under water...what else?

Who were the people in the photograph, and what were they doing? Who can summarise the scene quickly and accurately?

The photograph shows two police officers trying to release a woman whose car went into the water at Northcote Point, a suburb of Auckland in New Zealand, in February 2015. The car reportedly overshot the car park wall at a ferry terminal. Reassure young people that the trapped driver was rescued before the car sank.

Explain that the reason for having just five seconds to view the photograph is that when vehicles end up in water there is very little time to react. Sometimes a car will float for a little while. But it will soon sink, and that usually happens within a minute or two - or faster. In such a situation every second counts.


Actions at the scene

Show the photograph.

Rescuers plunge into the water to save a woman whose car went into the water at Northcote Point on February 17 2015 in Auckland New Zealand North Shore Police constables Paul Watts and Simon Russell say they were just doing their job © Info

This was taken just moments before the main picture of the rescue. It shows two passers-by, and two police officers in the water. One of the police officers is trying to break the side window.

The two still photographs capture incidents frozen in time and silent. Talk about how different it may have been on the scene. What movements would there be, what sounds would have been heard?

Think about the shouting, encouragement, advice, the sounds of the water. If you were there, would you be shouting? How would you be moving? How would you have felt?

Discuss in pairs what you would have done if you were first on the scene.


Sequence of events

Use the sequence of events to start a discussion about how different people react in an emergency.

  • The car entered the water and started to sink.
  • A passer-by jumped in and tried to open a door and then to smash a window of the car, but couldn't.
  • A police officer used his baton to try to break the side window, but also failed.
  • The officer holding the rock aloft did manage to break the rear window.
  • The woman was pulled to safety before the car sank seconds later.


You can use some or all of the suggested questions below to draw out interesting debates.

  • What makes someone a helper?
  • Do you have to be trained to help someone in an emergency?
  • What skills and qualities do you have that would enable you to help yourself, or someone else, in an emergency?
  • What are the benefits of thinking through, and practising, what you might do in an emergency situation?
  • What emergencies do we prepare for, and regularly practice, here in the UK?
  • Are there some emergencies you can’t plan for? What qualities would be of value in these kinds of emergencies?
  • What does it mean to improvise in an emergency? In this scenario, how did the rescuers improvise to free the trapped driver? 


Whilst the chances of being trapped in a car which has crashed into water are very low, there are several reported incidents in the UK every year.

Ask young people to research advice online and create their own sequence of events detailing how they would act to help themselves and other passengers if they were to find themselves in this scenario.

The ROSPA website might be a good place for young people to start their research.


The science behind... a sinking car

Working in small groups or pairs, ask young people to answer some or all of the following questions. Discuss their responses, using the notes below.

  1. One end of a car will sink first. Usually it is the front end. In some vehicles it may be the back end. Why?
  2. The doors of a partly submerged car will be very hard to open. The pressure of the water would require more force to overcome than you have. One possible solution is to wait until the pressure equalises, neutralising the force on the door. But there are definite downsides to this plan. What are the problems?
  3. Opening a window would provide a gap to escape through, without letting too much water into the car. Why might opening a window be difficult?


  1. The weight of the engine usually means the front end sinks first. Some cars have rear engines.
  2. The door's mechanism may be jammed or it may just not open for some reason. If it does open once the pressures have equalised, the car will be full of water. You will have to have taken a deep breath at just the right time. You may panic.
  3. Many cars have electric windows, which the influx of water may have short-circuited. That's why it is recommended to open a window as soon as possible, before the electrics cut out.


When to help

Jumping in after a submerged car is an instinctive and natural reaction - for some people at least. Talk about the impulse to help.

Are there times when it might not be a good idea? Can young people think of news coverage of events where those who went to help put themselves at risk?

Hands up who thinks they would jump in.

Change the circumstances to find at what point people change their minds.

For instance, if they said they wouldn't jump in, ask, what if the water was very shallow, a close friend in the car, or a child or baby?

If they said they would jump in, what if it was fast flowing water, or had sharks in it?

Discuss how we make decisions and evaluate risk in emergency situations.


Feelings and thoughts

The unnamed woman in the car was reported to be startled and confused.

Discuss what she might have been thinking and feeling during the incident.

Agree on two more adjectives that seem good ways to describe what she is likely to be feeling after the event.

The police officers said they were just doing their job.

Imagine you were interviewing them for a school magazine. Draw up a list of ten questions you would ask them about their experience.



This resource was written by PJ White of Alt62 and published in March 2015.