A car plunged into a canal with a baby inside. A county bus driver came to the rescue

County bus driver Elijah Saleem saw a car drive off the road into a canal on a recent Tuesday night.

He pulled over the No. 27 bus and raced into the water to help. That’s when he saw a desperate father perched on a sinking vehicle, a baby in his arms. Then the really alarming moment arrived.

“He tossed me the baby,” Saleem, 34, recalled Tuesday after receiving a proclamation of heroism from the Miami-Dade commission for his Feb. 18 rescue of two adults and a child. “I remember telling him: ‘Wait. Let me come a little bit closer.’ … He was so afraid, he just tossed me the baby immediately as I started making my way toward him.”

Saleem caught the toddler, who didn’t cry. But the rescue off Northwest 27th Avenue wasn’t over.

Saleem stood in the shallows of the canal when he caught the child, but the adults — who Saleem later learned were brother and sister — didn’t want to leave the vehicle because they couldn’t swim.

So Saleem walked farther into the dark, the water nearing the collar of his bus uniform and the baby’s feet getting wet from his perch on Saleem’s shoulder. He managed to connect with the father’s hand and led the family back to the safety of shore.

On Tuesday, county commissioners held a ceremony to honor Saleem, now in his eighth year in a $60,000-a-year post. “To me, he’s a shining example,” Commissioner Barbara Jordan said.

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Miami-Dade bus driver Elijah Saleem, center, gives remarks as he received a special recognition from county commissioners, Esteban Bovo, left, and Barbara J. Jordan, right, along with fellow officials for rescuing a family whose car had plunged into a canal on Tuesday, March 5, 2019.

Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

The citation celebrated what Saleem describes as the scariest night of his life, one that still has the father of a 10-year-old daughter slipping into tears if the memory catches him the wrong way.

It began as a routine fill-in shift for Saleem, the third bus driver in his family. He was driving the No. 27 bus on Feb. 18, where Northwest 27th Street crosses a canal by 155th Street. Something didn’t look right.

“We’re taught to scan. As I’m doing my route, I’m scanning. Looking left and looking right,” Saleem said. “I happened to see a car to the right of me, and I thought that car should be making its turn by now. Why is it driving straight?”

The car left the road, and drove into the canal. Saleem pulled over, secured the bus, and radioed headquarters for help. “I gave it a few seconds,” he recalled. “Then I said, well, I have to do something.”

He estimates the rescue took about 10 minutes. A rescue squad soon arrived to tend to the family, and Saleem’s passengers boarded another bus while he talked to police about the incident.

After midnight, still soaked and in uniform, Saleem got behind the wheel of the No. 27 again and drove it back to the garage.