TWIN BRIDGES — Sixteen days before Christmas, Christine Lambert nearly died — trapped inside her car as frigid water rushed through the doors.
But then two men — strangers — appeared and rescued the 70-year-old Butte woman in what she described as a serendipitous convergence of “lucky things.”
“My hero strangers,” Lambert said on Monday when the trio reunited to recount their tale at Sweetgrass Rods in Twin Bridges — the flyrod-making business she owns with her husband, Glenn Brackett.
Andy Hupe, 81, a Sheridan retiree, was driving his pickup behind Lambert on Highway 2 shortly before 2 p.m. on Dec. 9. A few minutes earlier, he had pulled over to let Lambert pass at the crest of Pipestone Pass as they headed toward Butte.
Then, as a snowstorm whipped through the Mining City, he saw her Dodge Caravan start to spin on the slick, twisty roadway south of Continental Drive.
“Oh boy, she’s gone into a skid. I hope she comes out of it,” Hupe thought to himself as he watched the spinning car.
He noted the steep bank and pulled over to find Lambert’s car lying upside down in a pond about eight feet from the road.
He grabbed an 18-inch fencing tool and headed for the van. Noticing the van had broken through the ice and was likely taking on water, he hoped there were no children inside.
Butte resident Mike Vincent, 69, saw Hupe as well as Lambert’s tracks going off the road. He pulled over behind Hupe’s pickup and said, “I’ll help you.”
Lambert observed her cellphone floating by her as she was strapped in her seat belt upside down. The pressure from the restraint nearly took her breath away.
“I see my phone. I pick it up,” Lambert said. “I tried to call 911 and it didn’t work. Then I said, ‘Calm down, try again, and go very slow.’”
“Stay calm” would be her mantra throughout the ordeal.
At 1:56 p.m., she dialed 911 and, despite a voice weakened by the pressure of the seatbelt, she explained what had happened.
“Female states she just rolled her vehicle, vehicle is in the creek upside down, female states water is coming into the vehicle, states she cannot breath at this time,” a Butte-Silver Bow police dispatch log notes the call as relayed by the dispatcher.
The water in the pond was over Hupe’s knees as he attempted to break the driver’s side window of Lambert’s van with the tool he retrieved from his pickup.
“It bounced right back like a pingpong ball hitting cement,” he said.
Vincent said Lambert’s van was at an angle adjacent to the pond with its hood and passenger front-seat side angled precipitously in the water. He was able to open the sliding door. The water coursed inside the van less than 6 inches from Lambert’s head.
Hupe said he tried to unlatch Lambert’s seat belt but quickly realized gravity and pressure were against him. He took out a 3-inch knife and handed it to Vincent. “Now, you’re going to get wet,” Vincent told Lambert, then slashed the strap near her shoulder. “As soon as I cut it, there was a big splash.”
Lambert said Vincent slid his hands underneath her arms and pulled her quickly from the van. She asked him to stop twice so that she could maneuver her feet around the seats.
“I’m not a skinny gal,” Lambert said, her blue eyes twinkling. “I wish I was 100 pounds lighter.”
The two men carried Lambert to Hupe’s pickup with help from two men in their 20s, who then admitted to Hupe that they hit his truck after their car slid on the ice.
A blonde-haired woman in her 30s who may have worked in the medical field gave Lambert a sleeping bag to ease the chill that she said she did not feel until later.
“She was very kind and soft spoken and very calm,” Lambert said, adding that she had placed a notice at St. James Healthcare in an attempt to find the woman.
Hupe made the 6-mile drive to Lambert’s home, the whine of the heater and their easy banter providing comfort.
A police officer at the crash scene said Lambert had refused medical treatment.
“I never hit the steering wheel; I didn’t hit my head. There was absolutely nothing wrong with me and no bruising from the seat belt. That’s how non-impactful (the crash) was,” she said.
But Lambert admitted that she was stressed and exhausted, requiring a lot of sleep in the two weeks after the crash. She suffered a bruise on her left knee and a sore back.
“I came out of this unscathed, except emotionally,” she said.
'Meant to be there'
Hupe believes he was “meant to be there” on that particular roadway to save a life.
Vincent, too, called it destiny. He said Highway 2 is a “tough road” and added that on the day Lambert’s van slid and rolled over into the pond, it had a one-inch layer of slushy ice, and the wind was howling.
Vincent, a longtime masonry contractor who still works laying brick, is the father of Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Matt Vincent.
For Hupe, the hazards found on Montana roads — ice, snow, moose and other wildlife — mandate vigilance. When he sensed Lambert might have been in trouble, he said he had to stop to clear his mind.
Similar to the bonds of kinship forged during military service — Vincent served in Vietnam with the U.S. Marine Corps, and Hupe had a three-year hitch with the U.S. Army — both men agreed the call to render aid trumped everything.
“I believe the people of Montana have a strong sense of community and service,” Vincent said. “Why would you not stop?”
Lambert said Hupe told her after the rescue that he was meant to save her life.
Still in shock
On Monday, Lambert expressed joy at seeing Hupe and officially meeting Vincent at her shop in Twin Bridges.
“There were hugs — my heroes,” she said. “My rescuers are older than me.”
“Almost,” Vincent replied.
“It’s a better story,” Lambert quipped.
At the time of the accident, her husband was fishing in the Bahamas, and she forbade anyone to call him. When he returned several days later, he saw the totaled van and “got really upset.”
“I think I’m still in shock over it. It’s hard for me to conceive I was close to dying until I hear these two,” Lambert said as she listened wide-eyed to Vincent’s and Hupe’s narratives of the crash.
Lambert credits her emergency training in her 20-year career in the airline industry and a stint as a lifeguard in her youth — and being a mother to five children — for helping her not to panic in times of crisis.
Years of honing a calm demeanor in the face of fear can be forgotten under duress. When Lambert’s van started spinning, she said it was difficult to “manage” her brain and take her foot off the brake and stop overcorrecting. She was not terrified, because the van was moving slowly, and she knew it would stop. But when it “tumbled over,” it quite literally nearly took her breath away.
The crash has left Lambert “anxious” about driving — and scared about what could have been. But she feels fortunate. “Every day is extra,” she says.
Before she bid her goodbyes to Hupe and Vincent on Monday, she agreed with her husband to make holiday donations to their charity of choice. Vincent chose Toys for Tots, a program run by the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. Hupe asked that the money go toward a meal program for seniors in Sheridan.
To her heroes, Lambert gave effusive gratitude.
“Thank you, thank you. I get to have Christmas with my granddaughter,” she said.