When the water pouring into her Jeep reached her chest, Amanda Kusovich knew: If she didn't move, she would die.
She had already lost the ability to drive the vehicle. The tires of her four-wheel drive were not touching asphalt. Instead, muddy, turbulent floodwater rushed under, around and above them, filling the Jeep's interior so rapidly that thoughts of fear were a luxury. Kusovich had to make a plan.
The 31-year-old, green-eyed blonde was caught in a flooding river off Kanan Dume Road during one of this winter's torrential rains. Those weren't the circumstances she expected as she approached a usually dry creek bed that separated her from her home. She had not been feeling well, so she left her job as a vet technician at Dr. Sandy's Home Veterinary Care at about 2:30 p.m.
Kusovich has been around horses all her life, a relationship that had led her to this creek in Triunfo Canyon. She had taken a job at a horse farm within its bounds, found a place to live there, and stayed on after she started working with Dr. Sandy.
As she arrived at river's edge on this day, January 13, Kusovich judged the water to be about a foot deep. But she couldn't be sure.
She considered her options for a while, sitting bundled up in a sweater, jacket, UGGs and fuzzy scarf.
A neighbor pulled up in a gray pickup. The two women talked for a couple of minutes, then Kusovich decided to check the condition of a crossing farther downstream.
When she returned, she spotted her neighbor's truck making its way up the hill on the other side. The woman had crossed.
So Kusovich followed, "cautiously quick," she says. Within moments, the act was neither.
The river poured in from holes in the Jeep's floor. Her engine died, the dashboard lights glimmered eerily. Water soon carried the vehicle, and Kusovich, away. She managed to roll down her window and yell for help a few times, to no avail. Then the hood tilted down. She was sinking.
When the water reached her chest, Kusovich knew she had to get out.
"Where's my purse?" she thought next.
Part of her concern was practical. "If I'm going to lose my Jeep," she said to herself, "I'm not spending the day at the DMV replacing my license."
There was also the matter of the bag itself — Louis Vuitton Alma leather tote, now floating nearby.
"Maybe because I'm a little tomboyish I always like to have a nice bag," Kusovich notes. "A nice accessory, like shoes for some girls."
She had purchased the Alma when she was 20, recently out of school and bartending in Boston.
"Everyone had one," she recalls. "It was a status symbol. The monogram was really classic." She also thought it had staying power. "I knew it would last a long time and it was a good purchase." So she spent the $550, her first big solo purchase.
Two lovely Louis Vuitton ladies' vernis purses followed, one in yellow, another black, one featuring an elegant clasp lock and the other a sleek zipper.
The Alma, however, was special. Her first Vuitton.
Kusovich grabbed it and slipped through the window into the cold, rushing unknown.
The river ripped her UGGs from her feet immediately. She was swept away.
Struggling to remain afloat, she saw a bridge ahead. Five men were lined up on it, watching. One dropped down a scarf and braced himself.
Somehow Kusovich grabbed it. But holding on to it wedged her under the bridge and underwater. The 120-pound blonde was spinning like a fish on a hook.
She had to let go.
She popped up on the other side. The man who had dropped his scarf down dove in.
"Hold my hand," she heard him say.
Adolfo Gonzalez, a stranger who worked in the canyon, pulled her toward shore.
"Not many people would have done what he did," Kusovich says.
As for the purse ... "It dried out really nicely. It still needs to be cleaned out but it's looking really good." —Tibby Rothman