After the Accident: Seneca Valley Teacher Says Near-Drowning Makes Him a Believer
Nicknamed the “Miracle Man” by doctors, Leo Stefanacci and his family head to the Zelienople Fire Department to thank the volunteers who saved his life.
As he let out his last yells for help and aimed another kick at his car door before slipping into unconsciousness, Henry “Leo” Stefanacci's thoughts were on his two young daughters.
“It was them, right there,” he said, using his cane to point to Gianna, 12, and Carmen, 9. “I wanted to see them so bad.”
Stefanacci’s girls and his wife, Kelly, all were with him Tuesday as he paid a visit to the Zelienople Volunteer Fire Department to personally thank volunteers who jumped into the Connoquenessing Creek the night of March 3 to pull him from his submerged car—saving his life.
“These are true heroes,” he said as he bestowed hugs on several firefighters.
A popular learning support teacher at Seneca Valley Middle School in Jackson Township, Stefanacci said he was driving that night to his Zelienople home via Halstead Boulevard when he lost control of the car near a bend in the road and plunged into the creek.
The car landed upside down in the water. Stefanacci said he remembers little from that point other than screaming for help and trying his best to break out of the vehicle.
What happened next may have had a very different outcome were it not for four teenagers passing through the area.
Zack Madaffari, 19, twins Josh and Nick Spiegel, 18 and Aimee Scholl, 18, were driving on Halstead Boulevard on their way to grab a meal with friends at Burger King when they noticed fresh tire tracks in the snow leading to the water.
The teens, all volunteer firefighters with departments in the area, stopped to investigate. They called 911 after discovering Stefanacci’s car in the creek.
Stefanacci said he knows the teens and plans to reach out to them personally to thank them as well.
“I’d like to meet them,” he said.
As for the Zelienople firefighters who responded to crash, they were thrilled to have Stefanacci visit them.
“We like to see living proof of what we train so hard for,” said Gregory Dindinger, who was one of the firefighters who entered the creek’s cold waters to rescue Stefanacci.
“It doesn’t happen very often, so it’s a pretty good feeling,” added Scotty Garing.
Firefighters had completed training that enabled them to rescue Stefanacci as the result of a similar incident with a heartbreaking end.
Training Turns Tragedy into Triumph
A little more than three years ago, Seneca Valley High School seniors Elijah Lunsford, Sam Bucci and Trevor Barkley drowned after the sport utility vehicle in which they were riding went out of control and rolled upside down into a icy pond near the Zelienople-Harmony Sportsmen’s club.
All three boys were Zelienople firefighters. Their deaths in 2010 spurred Zelienople firefighters to begin training in water rescue.
As firefighters raced to the creek after Stefanacci's crash, Jacob Reeb said he flashed back to the night Lunsford, Bucci and Barkley died. This time, he said, firefighters knew exactly what to do.
“A tragic incident pushed these guys to make a positive outcome,” said Mark Lauer, chief of the Butler County Water Rescue Team.
When firefighters arrived at the creek, Garing said Stefanacci’s head was bobbing underwater.
Firefighters reached into the car to hold his head above water so he could breathe until they were able to pull him from the vehicle. Garing said he was unsure how long Stefanacci was in the water, but he estimated the time was between 20 to 25 minutes.
“He was minutes away from drowning,” he said before turning to Stefanacci. “There wasn’t much fight left in you.”
A medical helicopter flew Stefanacci to UPMC Presbyterian in Pittsburgh. Four days later, he awoke in the hospital’s critical care unit.
A Long Road to Recovery
Stefanacci is expected to make a full recovery, but getting there will take time.
The teacher said his body temperature dipped down to 77 degrees in the water, and he suffered a concussion and hypothermia. He also went into cardiac arrest and contracted pneumonia. Still, he has no permanent damage to his heart or brain.
His doctors call him the miracle man, he said.
“I’m feeling blessed,” he said. “I feel like I’m here for a reason.”
Until he regains his strength, Stefanacci walks with a cane. His speech also was affected by the accident, so he speaks softly and he's unable to talk for long periods of time.
A physical therapist now comes to work with him daily, Stefanacci said. It could be six months to a year before he makes a full recovery. In the meantime, he continues to have his good days and his bad.
“Today was a good day,” he said Tuesday.
Once he gets the go-ahead, he also is eager to resume teaching.
“It’s my calling,” he said.
The accident also has changed his life in other ways—he’s now a believer.
Prior to the crash, Stefanacci said he did not believe in God. With a second chance at life, Stefanacci said he is living proof of a higher power.
“I know there is a God now,” he said.
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