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Get Out Alive: How to survive a water crash

LAFAYETTE, La. - If a car or helicopter crashes into water, those inside can take certain critical steps to drastically improve their chances of survival.

Research shows as many as 400 people drown in vehicles annually in the U.S., and for years Louisiana has been one of the top five states where the deaths occur, according to the National Highway Safety Administration.

The worst-case scenario can take your life whether you're in a helicopter with offshore workers taking a nose dive into the Gulf, or you're in a car crash on the Causeway and pushed over the railing.

In November of 2006, Scott Strauss described what it was like to escape his vehicle after it was pushed into Lake Pontchartrain.

"All the sudden I was just hit from behind, and the next thing I know, I was in the water," said Strauss.

"I almost did not make it to the top. By the time I started seeing sunlight I was gasping for air," Andrew Powell, another survivor, said in 2011.

Following specific steps can help lead you to your next breath, according to instructors at the Marine Survival Training Center in Lafayette.

"You make a mistake in this unit, that is the perfect place to make a mistake," said Pierce DuPont, talking about a helicopter simulator that dunks into a pool. "You make a mistake in the field and it could be costly."

There are crucial differences between escaping a car and escaping a helicopter.

Pilots, offshore workers and research engineers go to the Lafayette Marine Survival Training Center to face their fears. They're encouraged - and often required - by their employers to prepare for a helicopter disaster.

"This definitely puts a bit of reality as far as getting you in the water trying to get over the fear. You see the water rising from your feet," said Christine Barry, a research engineer.

DuPont tells the group it's only, "7 seconds under water, air should not be the problem."

Strapped into the simulated helicopter they brace for a crash, taking deep breaths up until the last moment.

"Thumbs up if you're good to go," said DuPont. "Alright divers clear? Ditch me straight in."

A final gasp of air and the water rushes over their heads. Pressure makes it much harder to open the door when trying to escape.

This is where you learn that your instincts in the helicopter may kill you.

"Without this training, the first thing your going to do is go for your belt. The belt is an asset. The belt is keeping you where you know where you're at, it's providing you leverage to operate that exit," said DuPont.

It's almost impossible to push the window out or open the door without leverage.

"You're floating around in there trying to push the window, and it's just pushing you back into the simulator," said DuPont.

The trainees are taught to open the exit first and then hold on to the door frame to stay oriented.

The third step is to undo the seat belt. In a helicopter, the escape must be in that order, according to the instructors.

"It's only 8 to 10 seconds you're going to be under water. So you can probably hold your breath for that amount of time. So all you have to do is stay calm, go through your steps and get out of the situation," said Darren Ridgedell, a student instructor.

In a car, the order of the steps is different. Following the steps correctly can be live-saving.

Safety expert Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht of the University of Manitoba operates the Laboratory for Exercise and Environmental Medicine. Giesbrecht says start with unbuckling your seat belt. Then, he says, try to roll down the window. For at least a few minutes, the electronics in many cars will still work under water.

"I've heard rescue divers say that they have rescued cars off the bayou and the radio was still playing if they got to it within a certain amount of time," said DuPont.

If that doesn't work, Giesbrecht says do not dry the car door. Instead, break the window.

"It's much harder to push out a car window, but you might be able to. You might be able to get something sharp enough to puncture the window. I have seen people take off head rests and they hit the door like that and crack the window," said Ridgedell.

It's crucial to stay level-headed.

"They usually go too fast. The thing that we always say, the slower you go, the faster you get out, and that's just about staying calm," said Ridgedell.

"In a panic mode, you're drastically decreasing your chances of survival," said Dupont. "They're trying so fast to get out of there. It's taking them longer if they make it at all."

In 2006, Scott Strauss reiterated that point when describing how he made it out alive.

"I think anybody in any emergency situation is scared. It's just how you get through it after that point," said Strauss.

Don't panic even if the helicopter or car flips upside under water.

"When they flip it upside down I mean you do get a little discombobulated," said William West of Priority Energy Services.

"There's so much turbulence within the water itself that it does disorient you. Trying to remember where everything is, you know, knob at your knee, push at your shoulder sort of situation definitely keeps you calm in that sense that you can keep that area of reference," said Barry.

To ensure the trainees would remember the steps in an emergency, each group dunked underwater, and escaped to the surface, multiple times.

The water shot through their sinuses, and scuba divers were on hand in case they needed to be pulled out.

"It was a little rough," said West.

"At least now I know that I wouldn't panic," said Barry.

It's like spinning inside a washing machine. The trainees are told to stay put in the helicopter simulator until it stops moving.

Dupont says following these steps helps nine out of 10 people get to safety: exit, frame, seat belt for a helicopter.

Giesbrecht says if in a car, remember these steps: seat belt, window, exit and you're back in the open air.

Giesbrecht says if there are children in the car, unbuckle your seat belt and open the window first, then help the children get to safety with you.

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