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Dramatic rescue of toddler trapped in bank vault marks its 20th anniversary

Retired Menlo Park fire chief recalls the grueling operation to free 2-year-old Daniella Sevilla.

It has been 20 years since the Menlo Park Fire Protection District made national headlines by saving a little girl who was accidentally trapped in a bank vault.

Maria Sevilla worked for Washington Mutual Bank on Woodside Road in Redwood City and had just picked up 2-year-old daughter Daniella from day care on Aug. 14, 2003. She walked into the vault without knowing that the toddler had followed her inside, then exited and closed the electric-powered steel door. Shortly after, there was a power outage that made it impossible to open the vault for the next 12 hours. Realizing that her child was trapped inside the vault, Sevilla immediately called the fire department.

Retired Menlo Park fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman, now the fire district's historian, was division chief of special operations at the time, and recalled the grueling five-and-a-half-hour rescue. When first responders arrived at the scene, it was clear that the department needed outside help and specialized equipment, he said.

The only reasonable options were to either to wait out the 12-hour timer, or to try and penetrate the reported 20-inch thick steel-reinforced concrete wall. Our plan was to use a commercial 12-inch drum drill to create a hole, or tunnel, for the child to ultimately crawl through, he said.

The plan to drill a hole in the vault was simple, but required a lot of precaution. The vault was not temperature-controlled, the box lockers inside it were in danger of tipping over and harming the toddler, and the lack of information about the electrical system of the wall made the process difficult, he said. The rescue task force had to borrow the drill from Lombardo Diamond Concrete Coring Inc.
After 40 minutes of carefully working to install a camera into the vault, Sevilla was able to see her daughter.

Maria was relieved but concerned about seeing her daughter sleeping naked on the vault floor; the warm temperature had prompted the child to strip off all her clothing. Schapelhouman said.

Maria called Daniellas name, she awoke, only to see a light, (on a) dark 2-inch circular camera head, strangely with her mother's voice, looking back at her. She started to call for her mother but also became upset as to why she wasnt there in person, as her mother worked to both calm and explain to her what was occurring.

When the drill breached the vault walls, the hole was fitted with a rubber mat and K-Y Jelly lubricant to make it easier for the toddler to pass through. Sevilla called out to her daughter and was armed with two stuffed animals to coax her through the makeshift tunnel. After the pair was reunited, Daniella was sent to Kaiser Hospital to be checked out.

Despite gaining national attention at the time, the pair have not surfaced in public again. Sevilla had declined interviews from Good Morning America and the Oprah Winfrey Show at the height of the interest in the rescue, Schapelhouman said .

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

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