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Mark Divittorio of Placerville, rescued a family of five from Livermore from the American River. (Courtesy of Mark Divittorio)

PLACERVILLE -- When Mark Divittorio set off to kayak the American River on his way home from Lake Tahoe on Thursday, he anticipated a familiar thrill he'd grown to love after 20 years in the kayaking community.

The 42-year-old Placerville man had just finished a solo river run that afternoon, a rarity for the man who counts his buddies as one of the integral parts of the kayak experience. He was packing up the last of his gear when he heard a loud rumble about 200 feet upriver.

When Divittorio whirled around, he was faced with a shocking sight that he hadn't encountered in two decades on the river -- an SUV, on its side in the rising waters. Without thinking, he jumped back into his kayak and paddled upstream toward the submerged vehicle.

This image provided by the El Dorado County Fire Department shows a crash site where an SUV veered off a road and ended up in the American river near
This image provided by the El Dorado County Fire Department shows a crash site where an SUV veered off a road and ended up in the American river near Kyburz, in Northern California. A kayaker is being credited with helping to save the family of five after this SUV landed in the river. (AP Photo/El Dorado County Fire Department)

The SUV, which belonged to 50-year-old Livermore resident Christian Lemler and his wife, Tricia, had abruptly veered off Highway 50 about 3:30 p.m. as the couple traveled with their three daughters through the Sierra Nevada in Kyburz, a town about 75 miles northeast of Sacramento, California Highway Patrol Sgt. Mike Poore said Monday. The car collided with a concrete mile marker, a tree and a boulder before plunging to the river below.

"The car was this twisted, tangled mess," Divittorio said in an interview Monday. "I ran up to the accident as fast as I could."


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When Divittorio paddled up to the wreckage, Lemler's three daughters were standing on top of the submerged car, having managed to get out of their seat belts and pull themselves out of the mutilated vehicle. The two older daughters, twin teenage girls, had pulled their little sister out of a complicated child seat despite the car being mostly underwater.

"They were incredible," Divittorio said. "They remained composed, and they did it, they pulled it off. They saved their little sister."

He then saw Tricia Lemler, her torso emerging from the mangled sunroof with her lower extremities still inside. It was then that he realized that she was propping up her husband's head with her thighs as he was drifting in and out of consciousness.

The quick-thinking kayaker promptly established a game plan.

"The first obvious thing to do was to get the girls to shore," he said. "A bird in the hand, right? There's three people you can save."

Divittorio first took the little girl to the shore, where another group of about four witnesses had gathered to help her. He then went back for the twins, and then for their mother and father. He also yelled to people on the highway above to call dispatch for a fire truck that had just passed by.

According to Divittorio, the couple continued speaking to each other, telling each other, "I love you" constantly as Christian Lemler drifted in and out of consciousness. Crews arrived within three minutes and were able to use large metal cutters to pull the roof off the mangled SUV and extract Christian Lemler from the driver's seat.

While Lemler's wife and daughters were not seriously hurt, he was taken to Marshall Hospital in Placerville, where he remained in stable condition Monday with major injuries. According to the CHP, they were not considered life-threatening.

Divittorio attributes his quick thinking to the very thing that drew him to the river in the first place.

"The one thing that really prepared me for all of this was kayaking with my friends," he said. "What we do when we go out there is we share an adventure that creates a bond. When we are going down the river, we assess risk, and we prepare for the worst-case scenario. We identify hazards, perform rescue plans. Safety and rescue is a part of kayaking, and after awhile it becomes instinctual."

Divittorio's Facebook page was quickly flooded with praise from others in the kayak community who lauded him as a hero for saving the Lemler family. But he reiterated that the rescue was not an individual effort -- there were many parties that played a part in making sure everyone got out safe, from the witnesses on shore to the brave teenage girls who rescued their little sister.

"I hear a lot of people talking about what a hero I am, and that's nice, but it's not exactly the point," Divittorio said. "There was definitely heroism by (Tricia Lemler) staying with him and helping keep his head afloat. There was the firefighters -- they do this stuff every day -- and there were the people that called to report it. He's got nurses right now who are looking after him. There were the surgeons."

Divittorio said he has not talked with the family since the wreck but that he would like to do so eventually, once the family is home and settled back into their lives.

"I'm going to wait for a couple weeks and let the dust settle," he said. "I feel connected to them, and I'd like to know them for the rest of my life ... but they're definitely going through some stuff."

And while Divittorio was ready and prepared for the rescue at hand, he says it was beyond what he could have imagined when he set off on that mild river run.

"It was a little more than I signed up for, I'll tell you that right now," he laughed.

Contact Erin Ivie at eivie@bayareanewsgroup.com. Contact Rick Hurd at rhurd@bayareanewsgroup.com.