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Rescuer says shooting out car window was only option to save kids

Published January 5, 2012 7:20 am

Logan crash • Man broke window with bullet to save downing children.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Chris Willden wants to be perfectly clear — if he'd had any other choice, he wouldn't have fired a bullet into the window of the partially submerged vehicle with three children trapped inside.

The car doors wouldn't budge and he knew time was against him.

"I didn't have a spring-loaded window breaker and a tire iron wasn't available," Willden said Wednesday. "If I had another option, I would've done it."

Willden instead believed the best course of action to free the kids — two 9-year-old girls and an unconscious 4-year-old boy — was to carefully line up his .40-caliber Glock 23 handgun under the water at the edge of the window and shoot a single round to shatter the glass.

The whole thing might have taken a total of five minutes from when Willden saw the car that had slid off the road on Highway 89 Saturday and into the icy Logan River to the point where about eight people clambered down and flipped the overturned vehicle right side up and saved the lives of the three children.

All are OK, and Mindy Andersen, mother of the children, was emotional at a news conference Monday.

"Hero," she said, "is not even big enough for what they did."

But law enforcement also wanted to caution people that firing a weapon into a window of a car with people trapped inside shouldn't be the default first option in a rescue attempt.

Lt. Lee Perry, a Utah Highway Patrol trooper and a Republican state lawmaker from Perry, said while Willden might have had special skills and expertise in the daring rescue attempt, average people — even those with concealed weapons permits — should seek other means to extract trapped people from cars if possible.

"Chris Willden has a considerable amount of experience — more than an average person with a concealed weapons permit," Perry said. "That said, I'm not even sure I'd want a law enforcement officer to shoot a window out in a life-and-death situation. There is still a possibility of ricochet and an individual would have to know that at some level."

Willden owns and operates Strategic Tactical Group, a Bountiful-based business whose website boasts an array of offerings in the area of "tactical gear, equipment and training for military, police, SWAT, security and civilians."

Willden, 35, served more than eight years in the Utah Air National Guard as well as seven years on a military sniper team and providing security for Air Force One during President Bill Clinton's tenure, according to his professional LinkedIn site.

He said in a Tribune interview he wasn't worried about bullet ricochet because he was using hollow-point bullets that "parachute open" when striking a surface. Coupled with the bullet traveling through water, he said it would've slowed down "rapidly."

"I've fired handguns in the water and I knew where it was going to go," Willden said.

Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Phil Rawlinson, who investigated the crash, said "he did a good thing we believe" but also wanted to caution people that firing a gun remains a dangerous act and should only be attempted when all other options have been exhausted.

Spencer Walsh, of the Cache County Attorney's Office, said it was a case of "all's well that ends well," but advised others facing a similar scenario that if a fired bullet ricochets and strikes a child, criminal charges could be filed.

He said the likely charges could range from reckless endangerment to a worst-case scenario of negligent homicide. He said no charges were considered in this case.

The accident at that bend on Highway 89 might not be that uncommon scenario, either.

Willden said two years ago, his car slid off the road at the same place the Anderson car did, sending his vehicle into the river. He said his girlfriend at the time and his child were in the car, but the vehicle managed to stay upright and he was able to climb out of the window and onto the roof before getting everyone safely to shore.

The Andersen family rescue was also not the first time a group of Utahns have lifted a heavy vehicle in an effort to save someone.

This summer in Logan, about a dozen people lifted a burning car off of a man who had been hit while on his motorcycle. That video became a national sensation and landed the rescuers on a series of national television shows.

Perry said he just hoped people who hear about the latest rescue might take precautions and carry a window punch — available at most auto parts stores — or have a tire iron handy in case they come across trapped motorists.

"I would definitely say try something else [before shooting] first," Perry said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

dmontero@sltrib.com

Twitter: @davemontero —

Audio

O Listen to KUTV's telephone interview with Chris Willden on the day of the accident • http://bit.ly/A083IL