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Before She Was Grandma, She Was a Hero

Photo courtesy Jessica Morado

How one California woman’s selfless act left ripples that lasted for decades

On a December morning in 1961, while she was driving to work at the Star-Kist Tuna cannery on Terminal Island in Los Angeles, 27-year-old Isabel Ramirez saw a terrifying scene: A car had driven off the Henry Ford Bridge and plunged into the cold waters of Cerritos Channel.

Isabel and her mother and sisters, who were riding with her, stopped to see what was going on. Dozens of gawkers stared over the bridge at the sinking car, but no one made a move to help — until Isabel saw a man’s arm wave desperately from the car’s open window.

Without a word to her family — “She didn’t give me a chance to say ‘no,’” her mother later recalled in an interview with a local newspaper — Isabel tore off her shoes and jacket and jumped off the high bridge, still wearing her work uniform.

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Half a century later, Isabel’s granddaughter Jessica Morado has trouble telling the story without being overcome with emotion. “She never second-guessed anything,” Morado says. “She just went for it to help people, and she was always strong.”

Jessica’s grandmother is her hero. A lot of us might honestly say that about our parents or grandparents. But in Jessica’s case, it’s not a figure of speech, nor is it only the gentle, everyday sort of inspirational heroism she’s talking about. Isabel Ramirez Pacheco, who died earlier this year at the age of 83, made it clear to all who were watching that day on the Henry Ford Bridge that she was a straight-up hero in the most objectively active definition of the word. Like a firefighter, or a test pilot, or a Purple Heart veteran.

What Isabel did on Dec. 20, 1961, would impact people’s lives for decades to come.

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She could swim, but she wasn’t a strong swimmer, and the waves were cold. But none of that factored into her split-second decision to hurl her body into danger.

Once in the water, Isabel found her way to the man who had waved for help, Ausencio Vigil, and fought to keep his head, and her own, above water until help came. Ausencio was in shock, but not too far gone to ask about the two men who had been in the car with him. Isabel knew she needed to keep him fighting for his life, so she told him his companions were fine.

It was 30 minutes before police and firemen were able to lower a ladder into the water and pull Isabel and Ausencio to safety. They would be the only two survivors to emerge from the water that day. By then, news crews were on the scene, too.

Cold and wet, her uniform torn and ruined by the ordeal, Isabel was exhausted, but she still called work to check in and explain why she was late. They told her that, all things considered, it would be okay to take the day off.

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Once the story made the local papers, calls and letters began pouring in. Friends contacted Isabel to congratulate her on her heroics. So did strangers. One, a local realtor, sent her $10 to help replace the clothes that had been damaged in the water.

Then people began inviting the young cannery worker to luncheons and ceremonies acknowledging her courage. Star-Kist’s vice president personally handed her a $100 award for valor. California State Senator Richard Richards wrote to express his admiration. So did Governor Edmond Brown. Then she was invited to the annual New Year’s Day Rose Parade — not as a spectator, but to ride on the Royal Court’s float as a Rose Princess, cheered on by hundreds of thousands in the streets.

And she was awarded the Carnegie Medal, the highest civilian honor for heroism in the U.S. It came with a $1,000 stipend. She was the first woman on the west coast ever to receive the honor in the 57 years it had then been in existence.

Through all of it, though, Isabel remained modest. She used some of the money she received to buy Christmas gifts for Ausencio’s children. And when a local organization wanted to throw a community dinner to honor her, she agreed on the sole condition that a collection be taken up for the families of the two men she hadn’t been able to save.

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Jessica recalls the first time she heard the family legend as a young girl. “Remember that time when Grandma was in the Rose Parade?” She was impressed, of course: Her grandmother had jumped off a bridge! To rescue somebody! And then she was the Rose Princess? That’s pretty exciting stuff for a seven-year-old.

As an adult, though, Jessica is impressed less with her grandmother’s kudos and sparkly crown, and more with the determined level-headedness with which Isabel handled everything — the moment of crisis as well as the long, public aftermath.

Her grandmother’s strong resolve, she says, gives her an inspirational standard to live up to.

“Whenever I'm trying to run extra hard or I want to give up,” she says, “I reflect back on what she did. She did things without giving up easily. So why should I give up? I always hold her strength in the back of my mind.”


Isabel Ramirez Pacheco died Feb. 11, 2017 at her home in Wilmington. Leave a condolence in her Legacy Guest Book at the Daily Breeze.