Quick action by a West Windsor man was instrumental in saving the life of a motorist whose car plunged into the Delaware and Raritan Canal in the late night hours of June 19.
Marko Oydanich, 27, of Newark, was driving home from a friend’s house in Princeton on Quaker Road headed towards Route 1, when he failed to navigate the 90-degree turn before the bridge over the canal. The car jumped the guard rail and flipped upside down into the water. Oydanich was trapped inside, gulping what little air was left.
Darren and Lauren Geist had just gone to bed shortly before midnight when they heard the loud crash outside their Port Mercer home, which overlooks the canal.
The couple went downstairs and looked out their dining room window. “We’ve heard scrapes before. That guardrail gets taken out fairly often,” Lauren said. “We said, ‘That was definitely a crash.’”
They couldn’t see anything due to the darkness. For the first time since they lived there, they decided to go out and investigate an accident.
“I don’t know what it was,” Lauren said. “We thought about going back upstairs. I’m a religious person. It had to be the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Your instinct is finely tuned over years, and it felt like something was off.”
Lauren said they still couldn’t see anything when they went outside. It wasn’t until Darren walked onto the bridge that he realized the gravity of the situation.
“I could see the guard rail was smashed, and as I got closer to the water, I saw the car beneath the bridge,” Darren said. “The blinkers were on and I could hear a someone yelling. There was very little of the car above the water.”
Oydanich was screaming for help and pounding on the windows as the car quickly filled with water. The passenger side of the vehicle—a 2016 Subaru— was pinned against a bridge support and impossible to open.
He tried to open the front door, which opened a crack and then slammed shut. That’s when he climbed into the back seat behind the driver’s side. He couldn’t open that door either.
Outside, Darren yelled to Lauren to call 911, but he didn’t wait for the police to arrive. “There’s that moment where you’re panicking in your head and think that the police aren’t going to come in time,” he said. “So I had to do something.”
Lauren was talking to police dispatch when Darren, the father of their 1- and 2-year-old children, jumped into the water. “Marko would not have survived until the police got there,” Lauren said. “Darren didn’t hesitate to jump in. He couldn’t see him and he couldn’t see into the car, but he knew he’d die if he didn’t jump in.”
Darren swung off a pole and into the canal. Just a few years ago, he never would have gone into the water, but in 2010 he overcame his fear of water by taking a SCUBA course.
The situation also fueled his actions. “In that moment, you’re on adrenaline,” Darren said. “Later on, I saw that was 10-feet up and pretty dark. The instincts I got from SCUBA diving might have helped me.”
Darren figures adrenaline also helped him pull open the driver’s side door. He reached inside, grabed Oydanich by the arm and pulled him out and up.
“It was easier than I expected,” Darren said. “Even after the car pressurizes, it takes time to fully open the door. The only thing I can figure is the car had filled enough to pressurize so it just needed a good tug.”
The Lawrence Township Police Department responded to the scene. When they arrived, Darren and Oydanich were on their way out of the canal.
Lawrence Police Lt. Joseph Lech said that its often very difficult to get out of a submerged vehicle due to the water pressure pushing on the door. “Then panic sets in on people in the vehicle. It’s very, very difficult.”
“I feel lucky we didn’t take longer,” Darren said. “It was a very small window to save him.”
Darren’s actions earned him a nomination from the Lawrence Police for its annual Citizen Lifesaving Award. Last year, Lawrence awarded three people the award, and its next ceremony will be in May.
“What Mr. Geist did was very heroic,” Lt. Lech said. “He basically put his own life at risk by jumping into the canal, which was very high because of the heavy rains.”
The Lawrenceville Fire Company and Trenton Heavy Rescue Fire Company also answered the 911 call. A heavy duty tow company removed Oydanich’s car from the canal after his rescue.
Lauren said she is floored by Darren’s bravery, though he already had quite a track record as a solid citizen.
He currently works as an attorney at Colgate-Palmolive in anti-corruption and anti-bribery, and his first job was at UNICEF.
The 36-year-old Princeton University graduate earned the Spirit of Princeton Award after starting a human rights group for genocide prevention.
In law school at New York University, he received its Vanderbilt Medal for starting a similar organization that worked to end human trafficking.
“I did know he was an incredible person, that’s why I married him,” Lauren said. “This is not a situation you ever anticipate being in. So many people wonder, ‘What would I do in a situation like that?’ Darren doesn’t have to wonder. He knows now. There’s something comforting in that you’d make the right choice. I was very impressed. He just took it all in stride.”
Darren said he had trouble sleeping in the days that followed, before exhaustion finally caught up with him. He’s been the talk of friends, family and coworkers after word got out about his daring rescue and award nomination.
“It’s like a whirlwind,” he said. “It’s humbling to be nominated for anything. You hope you’re not put in that situation and you hope you live up to that. I’m glad I did. People are calling you a hero, but I still don’t think of myself that way. I’m glad I could make my wife and family proud.”
Oydanich revisited the Geist family four days after the accident to thank them again. “It’s one of those things where it’s moving, it’s awkward, you don’t know what to say,” Darren said. “You’re both in this incredibly intense experience together.
“We were the only people down in that dark hole. I think we were both going through the accident in our head. He was grateful to be alive. He didn’t know the area. It’s pretty much pitch black. He didn’t know if there were any houses nearby, if anyone would be up at that hour, and he was under a bridge.”
The Geists were happy to be able to help. They are hoping that life returns to a little more normalcy for all who were involved.
“It’s one of those weird things,” Darren said. “After you save his life, you’re connected to him. You hope everything that comes from this is good. Hopefully they fix the roads, hopefully he’ll do good things with his life, and I’ll do good things with mine, and we can learn the best possible lesson from this experience.”
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When the Geists moved into their home three years ago, they had no idea that the stretch of road with a 90-degree turn and one small streetlight was so perilous. They’ve since heard plenty of fender benders from cars that don’t negotiate the turn, which they say is poorly marked compared to other nearby canal crossings.
“Later on, we realized that people have a tendency to speed,” Darren said. “There’s not enough fines, or speed bumps or lights, and people don’t realize how sharp that turn is. As a result, people are flying around that corner. We hear them get in accidents. I don’t think we’ve ever heard an accident like that, though.”
Lauren said that the spot the accident took place is “a strange intersection of West Windsor, Lawrence and Princeton townships, plus the bridge is owned by the state, and Quakerbridge Road is managed by the county. The situation makes it extremely difficult to get anyone to take action to increase safety along the stretch of road.”
For example, the spot where the car went into the canal is in Lawrence Township, but the road Oydanich drove off of in is Princeton.
In the wake of the accident, the Geists have increased their efforts to have the road, which changes at the bridge from Quakerbridge Road to Quaker Road, better marked.
“This is a motivator for us and hopefully for the towns to do something,” Darren said. “We love being on the canal with the kids. We love being outdoors.”
Lauren said they have assurances that from officials that there are plans to improve the area.
“It’s a hard area because it’s so many townships combined,” she said. “It seems like collaboration between townships would be needed to get it done. I’d love for a couple speed bumps and the speed limit to be pushed down. I’d love a cross walk there for pedestrians and runners. Maybe some more lights on it.”
Exactly two weeks after Oydanich’s accident, the Geists heard the sounds of another accident. They again went out to see if they could help. They didn’t want to ask, “what if.” Fortunately the situation wasn’t as dire as the one they faced on June 19.
“There were so many little choices we made that night that if we hadn’t made he wouldn’t have survived,” Lauren said.