Menlo Fire rescues toddler from locked bank vault 20 years ago today

by Harold Schapelhouman on August 14, 2023

It’s been 20 years since the two biggest stories of the day on August 14 were the “Historic East Coast Blackout” and “Firefighters Rescue a Two Year Old Locked In a Bank Vault”.

The five and a half hour long bank vault rescue at the Washington Mutual Banklocated at 1615 Woodside Road had what news reports later described as a “Hollywood style happy ending.” Unfortunately, the blackout did not, which led to months-long finger pointing and investigations.

A recent online discussion among retired Menlo Park Fire District Firefighters regarding the 40th anniversary rescue of an abandoned, three-hour-old baby found in the dryer of a laundromat in East Palo Alto spurred discussion of other “child-related” incidents with many wondering what happened to these kids.

As the resident Fire District historian, I publicly posted the “abandoned baby” story under the title “The calls that stick”, meaning one of the many memorable ones, and was amazed at the responses. From people wishing the unknown 40-year-old a happy birthday, to hoping he had been adopted into a loving home, to what do you think he’s done in his life and/or is doing now.

Topping the list of those “kid calls,” many were wondering what had happened to Daniella Sevilla, the rescued two-year-old child, who had been locked in the bank vault and would be a grown woman today, some 20 years later on August 14.

Despite requests for local and national media interviews, including Good Morning America and the Oprah Winfrey Show, Maria Sevilla, a bank employee had told her regional manager, Bryan Vanhuystee, that she wanted to decline all media interviews. The bank was also quick to add that they would not take any disciplinary action against Maria, the mother.

The five and a half hour rescue itself had gone extremely well, but with some tense moments. The mother was a dedicated bank employee who had earlier picked up her daughter at day care and then returned to work after hours to finish some projects.

The toddler was in the lobby playing with another employee when her mother entered the 25 foot by 25 foot bank vault, not noticing that her child had followed her into the vault and was sitting down behind some boxes out of view.

Mother Maria then exited the vault at around 6:30 pm, closing the heavily reinforced steel door and setting the electronically controlled lock, insuring that the door could not be opened for the next 12 hours. It wasn’t long after discovering that the toddler was missing, her mother realized she had accidentally been locked in the bank vault and firefighters were immediately called.

Captain Bill McFarland on Menlo Fire Engine 3 was a founding member of the Fire Districts National Urban Search and Rescue Task Force and veteran of various deployments like the response to the World Trade Center Collapse. After arriving on scene, he immediately understood that they were going to need additional, specially-trained technical rescue personnel and equipment.

When I was notified at home about the incident, I coordinated with on-duty Battalion Chief Rich Hall as to who else was on-duty and on our Search and Rescue Task Force. We then worked out who would respond, and what specialized equipment would need to be picked up and brought to the scene.

After another phone call to an FBI source who was named “the Safe Cracker,” we determined that the only way to actually open the vault was an interior release foot pedal that could not be used by a two-year-old child. So the only reasonable options were to either to wait out the 12- hour timer, or to try and penetrate the the reported 20 inch thick steel reinforced concrete wall.

The vault itself was ventilated but not temperature controlled. The door was left open for easy access during business hours but also because it got hot inside the small space. Given the circumstances, bank management agreed to a breach of the vault, but we discovered from them that there were several risks.

We were informed that the metal safety deposit box lockers were not secured to the walls and could be tipped over on the child if we weren’t careful. In addition, there was an electrical conduit in the wall that powered the vault’s lighting and a fan system for air circulation. Information on where these items were or how the reinforced wall systems steel grid was laid out seemed vague, conflicting or essentially non-existent.

Once all of the specialized personnel and equipment had arrived on-scene, we quickly developed a plan of action. Captain Ben Marra with his crew used a special Pomeroy Concrete Core Drill with a two-inch wide and eighteen inch long bit, our longest. We selected a location where we hoped to safely insert a search camera, all while we pumped fresh air under the vault door after first taking air samples.

The process took about 40 minutes with multiple bit checks, dumping of concrete core sections, bit changes and initially coming up short and having Firefighters Roy Trester and Ross Frazee forcibly breach the last several inches using a steel rod struck by a sledge hammer. Not exactly the “finesse” move we were hoping for, but it worked and we carefully punched through.

Using the Search Camera 2000 pole unit with a two-way communication system, we crowded around the cameras display screen to orient ourselves as to the location of the small child, and also so we could determine where things were inside the vault. Our plan was to use a commercial 12-inch drum drill to create a hole, or tunnel, for the child to ultimately crawl through.

Unfortunately, the Rescue Task Force did not posses that large of a drill system, but we knew who did. Lombardo Diamond Concrete Coring Inc. out of the City of Santa Clara had already been contacted, and Technician Tony Machado was already on his way with the equipment we needed.

Assisted by Search Team Manager John Wurdinger, mother Maria was relieved but concerned seeing her daughter sleeping naked on the vault floor. The warm temperature had prompted the child to strip off all her clothing.

Using the two way communications system, Maria called Daniella’s name. She awoke, only to see a light, dark two-inch circular camera head, strangely with her mother’s voice, looking back at her. She started to call for her mother but became upset as to why she wasn’t there in person.  Her mother worked to both calm and explain to her what was occurring.

Tony with Lombardo arrived on-scene and quickly set up a 12-inch wall boring drum drill. Slow but steady progress was made as the water lubricated system was inserted and retrieved in-order to remove circular sections of concrete. Work stoped, as we hit an electrical conduit which forced firefighters to shut down the fan and lights inside the vault. Work resumed and the conduit was examined revealing it is empty, so the lights and fan were turned back on inside the vault.

Animal Control was requested specifically to provide a long-handled snare if needed. A rubber mat was cut to fit the interior of the hole and coated with K-Y Jelly lubricant to insure the child was not accidentally injured passing through the opening. Two small stuffed animal are given to Maria’s mother to help coax her through the opening as firefighters tell her she will be the only who calls out to the child.

A transport ambulance is then backed up to the rear bank entrance and seven Sheriff’s Deputies are advised to keep unauthorized individuals and media away from the vehicle. Six individuals are specifically designated from several participating agencies to use a special rescue litter basket to move the child directly from the vault tunnel to the ambulance. This is done to avoid one agency, or individual, from rushing out with the child.

Shortly before midnight, the final concrete core section was removed. As planned, the hole was safety checked with an electric detection hot stick, then lined with the lubricated rubber mat. Maria’s mother was moved into position with two small stuffed animals, Animal Control Officer Christner was moved next to Maria with the pole snare, six personnel were also moved in line with the opening to receive the young girl once she exited the hole, and her mother was then told to call out her name.

The naked two-year-old needed no additional coaxing or encouragement to quickly crawl through the hole and into her mother’s arms. After speaking to her mother she was wiped down and placed into the litter basket and taken to the ambulance where she and her mother were taken to Kaiser Hospital for observation and released in the morning — never to be seen or heard from by firefighters and rescue personnel ever again.

As you can imagine, there was a lot of high fives and back slapping among those involved with this unusual rescue. As I told one of the news crews, “How often do you get to break into a bank vault, rescue a child in front of the world, and not go to jail”.

Many of us agreed it would be great to meet or hear from Daniella if she was so inclined. At the very least, we all hope she and her mom are doing well.

Harold Schapelhouman is the retired Fire Chief of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District and agency historian. At the time of this incident, he was the Division Chief in charge of Special Operations and the Local/State/Federal Urban Search and Rescue Task Force for the Fire District.

Photos by Peter Mootz.

Top photo: Menlo Fire Captain and Rescue Specialist Ben Marra and Firefighters Roy Trester, Ross Frazee and Matt Menard use a Pomeroy Core Drill to bore through 20 inches of steel reinforced concrete in order to use a special Search Camera 2000 pole unit with communications to look inside a Washington Mutual bank vault, where a two-year-old child, was accidentally locked inside.

Second photo: Special Operations Division Chief Harold Schapelhouman and Search Team Manager John Wurdinger look over the shoulder and assist mother Maria Sevilla, as she uses a special Search Camera 2000 to see her two year old daughter Daniella and speak toher about being accidentally locked inside the bank vault.

One Comment

Wendy August 15, 2023 at 8:35 am

Wow, all of you involved were real life MacGyver‘s! So awesome how everyone worked together, complete with the concrete coring company! Great writing, I feel like I watched a movie scene in my head, especially the last section of concrete being knocked out with a steel rod and sledgehammer. And cutting a rubber mat to fit in the hole with lubricant, pretty ingenious! It’s pretty amazing what transpired from that initial call to the end result, and all the problem-solving in between!

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