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‘Scored one for mankind’: Poulsbo man may be honored for saving a life

POULSBO — What would you do?

It’s a hypothetical question commonly posed in our society — in daily conversations, in songs, and reality TV shows.

But it is a question that one Poulsbo couple didn’t have to ask.

“It was a good weekend because we scored one for mankind,” Laura Kocker said.

While driving through eastern Washington on Oct. 12, Kocker, her husband James and son Matthew came upon the site of a car crash just outside of Ellensburg. The family was headed to Washington State University to visit their daughter when they saw a large splash in a pond off the side of the road.

“It was a huge splash,” Kocker said. “We thought, ‘What was that?’ ”

Shortly, they came upon a cluster of cars and a semi truck pulled off to the side of the road.

“Down this ravine, in this pond, we saw a car facing the opposite way, bobbing in the water,” Kocker said. “My husband quickly pulled off onto the shoulder.”

Matthew and others got their cell phones out to call 911 while James jumped out of the car and sprinted to the edge of the pond. Between James and the sinking car was a barbed wire fence.

“We couldn’t get through the fence,” Kocker said.

But they knew the car entered the pond somehow, and at a high rate of speed. James searched the shoreline. Approximately 40 yards away he discovered where the car had crashed through the fence. He entered and began taking off his shoes and jacket.

James is a former first responder from the Los Angeles Fire Department, and was a lifeguard as a teenager, though he hadn’t put his skills into practice for many years. He said he was going in.

“The car was sinking and it was sinking quickly,” Kocker said. “Jim waded into the water and swam out about 50 feet.”

The water was deep black and muddy, and it was very cold. The air temperature was around 40 degrees, typical for eastern Washington in October.

At this point, the water line was above the wheel wells, approximately six inches from the windows, Kocker said.

James reached the car and saw one man inside. He called to the driver but got no response.

“He yelled [to me], ‘Honey, he’s unconscious but he moved his head,’ ” Kocker said. “So we knew he was alive.”

The water pressure prevented James from opening the doors. Even so, he figured that if he did open the door, water would flood into the car and it would sink even faster before he could get the man out. James swam back to the shore, looking for something to break a window out.

Kocker said that other witnesses on the shore were still hesitant, warning not to break the window or move the man in the car.

A state trooper, Jay Farmer, arrived at the scene.

“Before he was going back in we heard sirens,” Kocker said. “I told Jim not to go back because he was blue, he was so cold.”

Trooper Farmer ran down the ravine to meet them.

“At that point the entire front of the car just plummeted,” Kocker said. “It went right under water. The two front windows went under water.”

James knew that the driver, strapped in with a seatbelt, was likely going under the water soon if he hadn’t already.

Farmer handed James his baton before running around the fence himself. James swam back to the sinking car, climbed onto the rear end and began swinging at the rear window. As he struck through the glass, the interior pressure changed, water flooded inside and the car leveled off. About 4 inches of the car’s roof was now visible above the water.

James swam to the driver’s door and was able to pull it open. He went under the water and swam inside.

“The water was just black, you couldn’t see anything,” Kocker said.

He unbuckled the driver’s seat belt, pulled him out, and brought him to the surface.

“He coughed up all that muddy water,” Kocker said.

With the driver in his arms, James swam back to shore where the trooper and medics were waiting.

It was uncertain why the man’s car crashed, but Kocker said they later found out that an epileptic seizure may have caused him to drive off the road.

The Kockers didn’t find out the driver’s name, Anthony Scott Johnson, until later when they saw a TV news story about the crash. Trooper Farmer heralded James’ actions to reporters.

The news traveled far. The Carnegie Corporation of New York, a philanthropic non-profit, is considering James Kocker for a Carnegie Medal, honoring civilians that perform acts of heroism.

As for Johnson — he survived, and will celebrate his 31st birthday this month.

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