SAN JOSE -- Texas law-enforcement officials traveled to the South Bay on Wednesday to honor an "extremely heroic" San Jose woman who last year encountered a catastrophic car crash in south Texas and successfully delivered a baby girl from her dying mother.
Iria Wolnick, 36, received the Director's Award from the Texas Department of Public Safety during a ceremony at the California Highway Patrol's field office in San Jose.
The department's award recipients are usually in-state, but in a rare instance, it sent representatives to California to ensure Wolnick was properly recognized.
"This is the first time I've ever done this," Texas DPS Lt. Jeremy Rowlands said on the far-reaching travel. "For this kind of act we recognize citizens no matter where they're from. This was extremely heroic, and without her actions that day we would have lost two lives instead of one."
Wolnick was traveling on Highway 77 in remote Kenedy County, Texas -- about 200 miles south of San Antonio and 50 miles north of the Mexican border -- just after midnight July 5 when she saw the aftermath of an SUV that rolled over and caught fire, illuminating the dark sky.
All three occupants -- a father and pregnant mother, and their 2-year-old daughter -- had been thrown out onto a field.
The mother, 19-year-old Niser Saldana-Quilantan, asked Wolnick if her baby was OK and that was when Wolnick spotted a laceration on the woman's abdomen, heard a baby's cries, and saw a head and tiny hand emerging from the wound.
"She kept saying, 'How's my baby? How's my baby?'" Wolnick said. "My reaction was to spring into action and do what I could."
Working off mostly instinct and some first-aid training, Wolnick said she delivered the 6-pound, 11-ounce baby, named Emma Lyn Anahi Ortega. A passing truck driver used a shoelace to tie off the umbilical cord.
Saldana-Quilantan was taken to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead, Rowlands said.
The 19-year-old father and the 2-year-old girl survived without serious injury. Wolnick said she has occasionally texted with the family but has generally opted to give them space.
A mother of four, Wolnick said Wednesday that the episode was a "life-changing" experience but also demurred in saying her actions were what she would expect from any person in a position to help.
"If I was in that situation, I would want someone to do that for me," Wolnick said.
But Capt. Les Bishop, who oversees CHP operations in San Jose, said these kinds of acts are not nearly that common, which is why Wolnick stands out.
"We might expect that from EMS and law enforcement, but with limited training, this was a good measure of Mrs. Wolnick's humanity," Bishop said.
Wolnick already had a heavy heart that morning: She was en route to her mother's funeral in Brownsville, which she said gave the birth special meaning and a sense of spiritual balance.
"I was given the opportunity to bring life into the world in those conditions," she said. "It's not something that happens every day."
Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.