The weather wasn't great Thursday night, a rain-snow mix with the temperature hovering at freezing. Michael Clark, on paternity leave from his job as a Canadian border patrol officer at the Pembina/Emerson Border Crossing, was driving back from a trip to see family and go to a doctor's appointment in Winnipeg. He and his wife, Tannis, a travel nurse on temporary contract in St. Paul, considered stopping at a hotel in Grand Forks, but the radar to the south looked clear.
Plus, an unscheduled night at a hotel with their 10-month-old daughter, Olivia, and their husky chow mix, Chewie, wouldn't be the easiest thing. They kept going.
A bit after 7 p.m., the weather quickly changed: wind whipping across wet Interstate 29, turning the road into black ice.
"The thing about the weather out here in North Dakota and Manitoba, it changes in minutes," Michael Clark said. "You don't expect it. The weather suddenly changed, and we had a minute until we were off the road."
Their 2020 Toyota RAV4 fishtailed, then spun 180 degrees, hitting the flooded roadside ditch rear-first near Gardner, N.D., 20 miles north of Fargo. The water in the ditch may have been a blessing, as it stopped the car's momentum.
But when 6 inches of water filled the car, it certainly didn't feel like a blessing.
Nobody was hurt, not even Chewie, the most panicked of the four, since the dog hates water. Clark's priority was to get them out of the ditch — a passing car could hit the same ice — so as his wife called 911, he climbed onto his hood to alert passersby.
Inside the car, the water kept rising.
"The water was still filling in the car," Clark said. "You never know with farmer ditches. You don't know if it's 2 feet deep or 8 feet deep, and if our car would keep sinking as it filled with water."
At 7:24 p.m., Mark Schultz's family were well into their nighttime routine at their home in Gardner when dispatch alerted the volunteer firefighter of an accident. He and his wife, Samantha, who works as an EMT, looked at each other with worry: "Any time you see it's a baby, the hair on the back of your neck stands up."
Schultz went to the fire hall while his wife drove straight to the scene, getting there within minutes and putting on her hazard lights. Schultz and a handful more firefighters from Gardner and nearby Grandin arrived a few minutes later. They brought Michael Clark to the fire truck to warm up — he was soaked and freezing, and they worried about shock or hypothermia — while they rescued the others.
First, of course, the baby. The mom handed her baby to Schultz. Olivia screamed: Stranger danger. Schultz wrapped her in his fire suit and carried her to her dad and to warmth. Olivia stopped crying the moment she got into her father's arms. Then firefighters helped get Tannis Clark and a very reluctant, fearful Chewie out of the flooded ditch.
Firefighters took the family to a hotel in Fargo while a tow truck retrieved their car. On Friday, the Clarks rented an SUV and drove back to St. Paul. The Clarks talked about how lucky they were: If there wasn't water in the ditch, their car might have flipped. If the water had been deeper, their trouble could have been amplified.
If the first responders hadn't come so quickly, who knows?
They got back to St. Paul at 3 p.m. Friday. Tannis Clark slept for a couple hours, then she went to work a night shift. She's on contract as a pediatric ICU nurse at Children's Minnesota until May. She knows her job is to be there for families, just like the firefighters who were there for her.