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It happened so fast. After a dinner with friends in October 1995 Janette and Greig Fennell pulled their car into the garage of their San Francisco home; their nine-month-old son Alex was asleep in his car seat behind them. Before the garage door closed completely, two masked men with guns rolled in underneath it.

They pointed the guns at the Fennells’ heads and demanded they get in the trunk of their 1991 Lexus LS400. It wasn’t until after the gunmen slammed the trunk door shut they noticed someone else was in the car.

Seconds later, the abductors pulled the vehicle out of the garage. The Fennells couldn’t hear any sign of their son and were terrified of what could have happened to him. Janette thought she and her husband were en route to their deaths.

“I start pulling at everything I could and I got the carpeting pulled out and the taillights,” Janette Fennell, who was closest to the back bumper while her husband was closest to the backseat, remembers. “I exposed a bunch of wires. I didn’t quite know what the wires were but I assumed backup lights … I thought I’d pull all those wires and it would look like something was wrong and we’d get pulled over.”

The gunmen took them to a park in a remote area, where the Fennells could hear another vehicle running. The abductors robbed them and demanded the PIN number for their ATM card. If the pin number didn’t work, the gunmen threatened, they’d come back and kill the Fennells. The abductors then shut the car trunk door and left in the other vehicle.

Although unexplainable because the car was turned off – Janette calls it divine intervention – she saw a light shining on a piece of metal in the dark trunk. Janette put Greig’s hand on the piece of metal and he found the cable that opens the trunk when pushed or pulled from inside the vehicle.

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He pulled the cable and the trunk lid popped open. Janette found the spare car key, hidden in the owner’s manual in the glove compartment.

After the Fennells reached a pay phone and called the police, an officer went to their home and found their baby still in his car seat, unharmed, outside of their house.

Many people told the Fennells how lucky there were to survive such an ordeal and that most instances don’t turn out like theirs did. Janette says she couldn’t help but wonder how the other situations ended and ‘how can you put someone in the trunk of their car and they can’t get out?’

She made it her mission to ensure no one else would have to suffer through being trapped in a car trunk. After four years of advocacy, including founding TRUNC – Trunk Releases Urgently Needed Coalition — a federal regulation was passed that mandates all vehicles manufactured globally for purchase or lease in the U.S. must have a trunk release installed inside the car’s trunk.

The regulation was effective September 1, 2001 and began in the 2002 model year.

Janette now focuses her advocacy work as president of KidsAndCars.org (formerly TRUNC), a nonprofit dedicated to preventing injuries and death to children in or around motor vehicles. For vehicles manufactured before 2002, KidsAndCars.org sells a retrofit kit called the Quick Out Emergency Trunk Release for $9.99, kidsandcars.org/online-store.

KidsAndCars.org reports at least 951 (living) people have been locked in a car trunk since 1973. At least 305 of those people, children and adults, died (this is considered to be below the true number of incidents because there aren’t other organizations with databases chronicling these events.)

KidsAndCars.org has not been able to document any cases of a person dying in the trunk of a car that has a glow-in-the-dark internal trunk release.

HOW TO SURVIVE

If you’re locked in a trunk, Janette says, stay calm and look for the release, which predominantly is a Tshaped plastic, she says, and be intentional on how you try to escape.

“Find the right moment, preferably at a stop sign or when car is slowed down and stopped,” she says. “Be careful because you don’t want to get out if they’re at a gas station because they’ll be right there and get you.”

“If you’re in an older vehicle, if there isn’t a trunk release, I suggest you do like we did ripping the lining off the back of the trunk and see if there’s a tool or anything to break the backup light. People have stuck their hands out there to grab attention or taken a bra off and stuck it out there to get attention. People have found a paint can and started dripping paint because that [will make a trail] to where you end up…you definitely want to try to draw attention to yourself.”

DON’T END UP IN A TRUNK

Beginning in the 2002 model year, a federal regulation mandates all vehicles manufactured globally for purchase or lease in the U.S. must have a trunk release installed inside the car’s trunk.

Beginning in the 2002 model year, a federal regulation mandates all vehicles manufactured globally for purchase or lease in the U.S. must have a trunk release installed inside the car’s trunk.

Aside from ensuring your vehicle has a trunk release, there are ways to improve your chances of survival, including preventing an abductionturned- car-entrapment situation.

Shawn Rafferty, a former Marine, police and corrections officer with 20 years of experience in the public and private security sector, says prevention starts with situational awareness and “knowing your surroundings.”

First, park your car in a lighted area, where other people are, to lower your chances of becoming a victim, says Rafferty, who is developing a video series for his business The Safety Blueprint, thesafetyblueprint.com.

“Scan cars you’re walking by — people could be hiding in them,” he says. “If you’re wearing loud shoes, (a potential abductor) can hear you; if your keys are jingling, they know you’re coming…if you unlock your car 10 or 15 feet before you get there, then they know you’re nearby as well.”

KidsAndCars.org sells an after-market Quick Out Emergency Trunk Release for $9.99.

KidsAndCars.org sells an after-market Quick Out Emergency Trunk Release for $9.99.

If you’re approaching a car from the rear, Rafferty says, quietly walk at an angle as you pass the trunk and backseat, so that someone can’t jump out at you. Softly push the trunk lid down to make sure it’s not open (if it is, get out of there) and check the backseat of your car to ensure no one is hiding in there; meanwhile look at the cars around you to see who is in there as well, says Rafferty, a former force protection officer in Kuwait who has also worked in security in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“If you happen to be carrying some type of weapon — pepper spray, Taser, handgun — walk out ready to use it,” he says, noting people should know the pros and cons of their weapons and practice using them so they will be able to follow through in a stressful situation.

“If you do get attacked and you don’t have any kind of weapons, now you (have to) use your hands and feet and teeth, whatever you can; the best thing to do is to eye gouge. Try to poke that person in the eyes.”

Jabbing your fingers into an attacker’s eyes, he says, can incapacitate someone who is high on drugs or used to being punched or kicked and wouldn’t respond to other forms of defense.

A young boy who was once locked in a trunk but found the glow-in-the-dark trunk release wrote the Fennell family a letter thanking them for their advocacy that led to the release that saved his life. The Fennells framed it.

A young boy who was once locked in a trunk but found the glow-in-the-dark trunk release wrote the Fennell family a letter thanking them for their advocacy that led to the release that saved his life. The Fennells framed it.

He says be ready to escalate in force; if eye jabs don’t work, try something else. Rafferty recommends people learn self-defense but take classes that teach realistic fight training such as Krav Maga, Muay Thai, Mixed Martial Arts and Jiu Jitsu. Most importantly be smart, he says, and be aware of your surroundings.

Fiona Quinn wasn’t paying attention in the summer of 1983 when she and her sister were headed to her car after a funeral and four men attacked them.

“I was inwardly focused and so not aware of my surroundings. The car stopped beside me and the guys jumped out before I knew it,” says Quinn, who is a black belt and second dan black belt-qualified in Tae Kwon Do and is also trained in weaponry including guns. Quinn’s sister froze, she says, which is a common response.

“So I fought fast and hard and as if my life depended on it, which it did. I punched one man in the throat and he collapsed. I kicked another man in the groin so hard that he vomited.” The men got back in their car and left. Quinn, an author who runs Thrill- Writing, http://thrillwriting.blogspot.com/, a blog for writers that includes expert interviews and advice on topics such as safety and escaping from predators, says chances of survival drop drastically when someone is taken from one location to another.

“IF YOU DO GET ATTACKED AND YOU DON’T HAVE ANY KIND OF WEAPONS, NOW YOU (HAVE TO) USE YOUR HANDS AND FEET AND TEETH, WHATEVER YOU CAN; THE BEST THING TO DO IS TO EYE GOUGE. TRY TO POKE THAT PERSON IN THE EYES.”

“Decide at the beginning you will fight to the death there and not get in that car. Know you will be hurt. Be willing to be hurt. And fight for your loved ones.

“Remember they will suffer if you are not there. I know that if someone was going to hurt one of my children all hell would break loose as mama bear went into action. Understand that that is who you are fighting for — it changes your perception and allows you to do things that you would not do for yourself alone — just one of those weird psychological twists.”

Quinn noted research shows attacks often come from people the victim knows. “Listen to your intuition and act to remove yourself from danger,” she says.

 

Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the June 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.