A research report, the haunting memory of a failed dive rescue attempt in which I was involved in 1985, and an unsuccessful dive rescue attempt that occurred in February 1993 worked together to intensify my belief that there is an urgent need for effective communication and dissemination of information throughout the dive rescue community—such as the following information pertaining to a technique for breaking windows in submerged vehicles.

The impetus to write this article came as I was reading a report written by Sergeant James Ewers of the Michigan State Police Department about the findings of the Operation STAR (Submerged Transportation Accident Research) project conducted by that department The objective of the project was to identifythe most and least effective methods of escape before and after a vehicle submerges. The article, published in Searchlines, the publication of the International Association of Dive Rescue Specialists, described the futile attempts of divers participating in the project to break the window of a car submerged in water with a stabbing thrust of a diver’s knife.’ The findings of these divers brought to mind the unsuccessful 1983 dive rescue attempt.


In that incident, which occurred about 9 p.m. on December 26. 1983. I responded as part of the Indiana State Police Dive Rescue Team to a call that a ear had skidded from a roadway into the White River, just south of Martinsville, Indiana. A snowstorm was in progress and the temperature was in the mid-20s. The bottom of the river was dark and cold, and the current was swift. Eyewitnesses made it possible for me to immediately locate the 1985 Ford, which had landed upside down in about 1 5 feet of water. I attempted to rescue the male driver. The driver’s side window was open, but it was blocked by a large boulder I sing my flashlight. 1 could see the driver face down through the passenger window. Several attempts to break the window with stabbing thrusts of my diving knife proved futile, and I could not open either door due to the c ar s position and because the tops of the doors were resting in the silt and rock of the river bed. It was a very frustrating situation.

The only other option was to move the car. With the aid of a wrecker, the car was rolled to a position from which the driver could be pulled through the open window on the driver’s side. The victim then was pulled to shore, where resuscitation was attempted. The car then was rolled onto its wheels and towed from the river. The driver died I lad 1 been able to get him out immediately, he might have had a chance.

I once again turned my attention to the STAR research article, which went on to explain that “side windows are virtually impossible to break without the use of a spec ial implement.” I believe the implement referred to is a center punch. During the mid-1980s, we had experimented with such a device and determined that its success rate in breaking windows was unacceptable.

Subsequently, the Indiana State Police Department’s Underwater Search and Rescue Recovery Team (USRT) adopted the position that breaking windows should not be considered a potential escape option and that if attempts to gain entry into the vehicle failed, the vehicle was to he rigged for towing immediately. In fact, our polio stated that while one diver is attempting to gain entry, a second diver should be rigging the car for tow. This policy was in force until 1990, when a new technique for breaking windows was developed.

However, discovering new findings alone is useless —unless the new information is shared. This fact became even more painfully evident to me after the February 1993 dive rescue incident, the description of which follows.


On February 23, 1993, a 30-year-old woman from Monroe County, Indiana, died when her car went off a roadwaydown into a quarry 30 feet below.2 A driver making trash collections rounded a curve on the slick roadway and spotted fresh car tracks across the snowy road and off to the side. He left his truck and went over to the edge of the road to investigate. He looked down and saw’ the car, which was about two-thirds underwater and sinking. He also reported seeing “blond hair” and “a person in the back of the car” who appeared “to be trying to get out the bac k window.” He ran to his truck to radio for help and waited for police and paramedics to arrive. The truck driver reported: “There was no way to get down to the car. It went about 10 feet under the water. 1 never felt so helpless. There w as nothing I could do.”

Two off-duty deputies, both divers and members of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department Rescue Diving Team, reportedly were in the water within about 20 minutes of being called to the above scene. One of the divers used his elbow to break through inch-thick ice at the edge of the water so the divers could go under the water. Because the car had “twisted” and come to rest between two big blocks of stone, the divers could not open the doors; attempts to gain access through a window were unsuccessful. The car eventually was towed from the quarry.

Adding to the tragedy of this story was the later revelation that a member of the Indiana State Police Dive Rescue Team, who was at home less than three miles from the scene at the time of the accident, might have been able to save the driver. The trooper wrote to me explaining that he had learned a new technique for breaking car windows underwater at an annual dive rescue training session in 1991 and believed that he might have been able to save the victim had he been at the scene. Equally distressing was the tact that the newly formed Monroe County team responding to this incident did not know of this window-breaking technique—despite the fact that the headquarters of the two dive rescue teams are within five miles of each other


I refer to the underwater windowbreaking technique as the “Gates technique.” It was developed by Greg Gates, a firefighter with the Indianapolis Fire Department and a rescue diver, during the National Association of Underwater Instructors Advanced Openwater/Dive Rescue course, which focuses on problem solving. The technique works underwater and top side on all windows (including side vent windows) except the windshield. Firefighter Gates, during the course of conducting numerous fire department rescue classes, has experienced 100 percent success in shattering more than 100 windows on dry land and 20 to 30 underwater with this technique.

Cautions. When practicing this technique or performing it in an actual rescue operation, wear a face shield (making especially sure that the eyes are protected). gloves, and long sleeves. Performing this technique on dry land is extremely dangerous, since the extreme pressure with which the tip of the knife is pressed against the glass produces a force that could cause a shard of glass to fly from the exploding window, possibly causing serious injury. For this reason, full protective gear must be worn and safety practices followed. Although this technique is not recommended for breaking a vehicle window on dry land when a center punch or some other safer means of breaking the window is available, we have found that it sometimes is necessary to practice the Gates technique on land because of the expense and environmental concerns associated with sinking vehicles for underwater training exercises and since rescuers will be able to perform more confidently and successfully underwater if they first perform the technique on land under the watchful eyes of the training instructor.

The technique. The technique is applied as follows:

  • Place the blade of the dive knife flat against the glass of the car window and push the tip toward any edge of the window between the rubber seal of the door, door post, or roof The knife may be placed anywhere on the window: in the middle of the top edge, at a corner, or along either side of the window. A pointed knife works better than a flat-nosed knife, but Gates and I have successfully performed this technique with a wide variety of dive knives.
  • Force the knife point as far toward any edge of the glass as possible.
  • Bring the knife handle away from the glass and move it at a 45-degree angle to the glass.
  • As pressure is applied in this direction. continue to force the handle away from the glass, attempting to reach an
  • angle of 90 degrees or more.
  • As the point of the knife applies increasing pressure to the edge of the glass, it eventually will slip past the edge and cause it to chip. If the point does not slip past the edge of the window, pull the knife away from the window. When a great amount of pressure is applied to the edge of the window and the tip of the knife chips the edge, the entire window will break into hundreds of small pieces and fall to the bottom of the water. The window will make an audible pop when it shatters.
  • Some small pieces of glass will remain stuck in the rubber molding; therefore, rake the perimeter of the molding with the saw edge of the dive knife before reaching into the vehicle. The pieces of glass stuck in the molding can cut like a razor blade and, in addition to causing injuries to the diver and victim, also can damage dry suits, wet suits, or other equipment, creating serious safety problems I’he dive knife will be permanently scratched from this process, but the damage to the knife is a small price to pay for saving a life.
  • Be extremely cautious when reaching through a broken window. A limited reaching entry is recommended. If the
  • victim cannot be reached with the extension of one arm through a window, do not try to enter the vehicle any farther. Instead, move to another window and attempt another limited entry.
  • Once the victim is located and reached, remove the victim cautiously. While working slowly and diligently to extract the victim from the vehicle, be sure to hold the victim securely. After the victim has been removed, the diver then can signal the tender to bring you both to shore.

If practiced and done correctly, the technique works. The team commander of the Marion County Sheriff’s Department’s Dive Rescue Team successfully used it in several instances to recover potential victims from vehicles. The Indiana State Police Department’s USRT members successfully “Gated” more than 50 windows underwater during training.

The windshield. I’he windshield’s shatterproof construction makes it resistant to the technique. The entire windshield can be removed, however, by prying the window’s molding away from the windshield. The glue that holds the window to the car can be cut away from the framework using the dive knife to saw. pry, or twist. Two divers working on a front windshield can remove it in about five minutes.

Rear windows. Rear windows are a little more difficult to shatter. On rear windows, the palm of one hand may have to be used against the end of the knife , handle to pound the point up under the metal molding strip. This metal strip can be entirely removed if necessary to expose the edge of the window. The knife point then is forced between the window and the car frame. A rear window does not explode and must be raked as soon as it has “popped.”

As noted above, the Gates technique will work regardless of where the knife is placed on the window. If. however, the window flexes and does not break, try attacking it from a corner near the bottom, the point at which the most pressure can be applied. This approach may be indicated especially for some older model cars in which the window seals against the roof instead of the framework of the door.

If the car lands upside down in the water and the top of the vehicle is sunk into a silt bottom, the diver might choose not to attempt a limited side entry due to the problems associated with working in a soft bottom. Often, in a soft bottom, the weight of the engine will cause the front of the vehicle to sink much lower than its rear, making it possible to access the rear window. Sometimes, air from the interior of the vehicle rushes into the trunk, causing the trunk lid to open, which can prove to be an obstacle for dive rescuers. Hie trunk lid must be closed and secured before breaching the rear window is attempted.

The Gates technique: The knife point is pushed toward the edge of the window between the window and the rubber seal, keeping the knife as flat to the glass as possible.

(Photo by Rick Hammer.)

The knife is forced away from the gloss approximately 90 degrees or more. The force of the knife causes the window edge to chipthe knife slips past the edge of the window.

(Photos by Rick Hammer.)

The side window shatters.

(Photo by Rick Hammer.)

The perimeter of the molding b raked with the saw edge of the knife to remove glass shards.

(Photo by Tina Sunier.)

A limited reaching entry b performed.

(Photo by Tina Sunier.)

Note: For any window, if you find it difficult to exert enough pressure to cause the window to shatter, try twisting the knife to cause a smaller surface area of the knife blade to contact the edge of the window. The tip may have be pounded into the glued molding holding the window to the car before applying pressure. The side areas are effective for applying pressure toward the roof post with the handle, causing the point to slip past the edge of the window.

The technique should be practiced before it is attempted in an actual rescue. Owners of local wrecker yards generally are accommodating when asked to make vehicles available for practice. The Indiana State Police Department, in fact, hired a local wrecker service to bring four vehicles to the training dive site for its annual training exercise on a Monday and to haul them out on the following Friday. For environmental reasons, the engines, transmissions, and fuel tanks were removed from the cars before they were placed in the water. The training program includes classroom as well as open-water training. During this annual dive training session, all Indiana State Police/USRT members are trained in the following: floating times of submerging vehicles, position of landings, photography, interior and surrounding area searches, recording and recovering evidence and other data, breaking (“Gating”) and removing windows, rigging, lifting, and towing vehicles from the water.


  1. F’wers, James, “Operation S.T.A.R.,” Searchlines vol.10, Jan./Feb. 1993, 4-13, International Association of Dive Rescue Specialists,
  2. Lane, Laura. “Woman dies in accident.” Herald-Times, Bloomington, Indiana, Feb. 24, 1993, Al.

No posts to display