On Father's Day, Adam Nicely got a homemade card, a tiny stuffed animal, and the gift of life.
Nicely had just finished opening a present and card from his two young children, 6 and 4, Sunday morning at his Collingswood home. "Peek-a-boo, I love you," said the little fuzzy critter that popped out of a film canister his son, Wilder, had made for him.
It was shortly before 8, and Nicely decided to go back to the church where his band had practiced the night before, to make sure everything was tidy for Sunday services. The church, Circle of Hope in Pennsauken, was only about 10 minutes away. His wife, Kate, was baking him a shoofly cake, one of his favorites.
He was on South Park Drive in Collingswood, around the 300 block, and he remembers seeing a bright light, and then nothing else.
He doesn't remember his gray micro van barreling down a grassy stretch and plunging into the Cooper River. He doesn't remember water rushing up around him. He doesn't remember his head going under.
And he doesn't remember the dramatic rescue that followed.
Had it not been for a South Park Drive resident who saw Nicely's van go into the murky water and called 911, a trio of women walking nearby who jumped in to help, and the quick response of police and fire rescuers who pulled Nicely unconscious from the sinking car, he likely would have died.
"These are true superheroes, they are," Nicely's mother, Pat, said from her son's hospital room at Cooper University Hospital on Monday. "We thought this was the worst Father's Day possible, and it ended up being the best Father's Day."
Doctors believe Nicely suffered a seizure, something that happened to him once before, about five years ago.
Kate Nicely was grateful that people were willing to get involved.
"I just kept saying, 'Thank God for these people. Thank God for these people,' " she said.
Several of Adam's rescuers said they were just glad he was going to be OK.
"I thought I was going to see a guy die," said Monica Wolfram, 49, a Cherry Hill social worker and one of the women who jumped in the water to help.
Wolfram and two friends were practicing for a breast cancer walk when they heard a woman screaming. They turned and saw a van about 30 feet out in the water. Angelo Lother, a neighbor, had seen Nicely's vehicle go into the river. He told Wolfram it looked like the driver was shaking and suffering a seizure.
The women thought the driver had to be in the water.
"I'm going in," Wolfram's friend Mari Kehoe, 52, of Voorhees, said. "I thought, if she's going in, I'm going in. I can't let her go in by herself."
As the women neared the truck, they saw Nicely still buckled in, his head above water.
"He looked like he was semiconscious," Wolfram said. "We were banging on the window, trying to talk to him."
The doors wouldn't open. Nicely managed to roll down the window enough for Wolfram to reach inside and unlock the door, but she and Kehoe still could not open the door or undo the seat belt.
That's when Officer James Cavanaugh of the Collingswood Police Department arrived. He tried to break a window and struggled with the door, Wolfram said.
"The car kept sinking down, and he [Nicely] went under, which was pretty horrible," she said.
Finally, the door opened, and Cavanaugh freed Nicely, who was unconscious. Another officer, Kristina Bowen, took Nicely to shore, where fire rescue workers were waiting to treat him, Police Chief Kevin Carey said.
"It was a pretty scary situation," said Kehoe, director of kitchen operations at Cathedral Kitchen in Camden. "But I felt like, if it was my family member, I would want somebody to try and help him."
Kate Nicely, who met her husband at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, said police officers came to her house Sunday morning with her husband's wet wallet. She was terrified.
"I couldn't stand up, I lost it," she said. She retreated to the kitchen so her children would not see her reaction, she said.
She called her husband's parents, Ed and Pat Nicely, who live in York, Pa., and told them: "Come now. It's bad."
The Nicelys rushed to the hospital to find their son on a ventilator. They put out a prayer request on Facebook.
Pat Nicely, however, said she knew her son would survive. It was not at all like the dread she felt when her daughter Amber - Adam Nicely's only sibling - was struck with bone cancer more than 25 years ago. She died of the disease in 1989 at age 8, after a battle that the Nicelys faced with unflinching faith in God.
"I did not feel in my heart I was going to lose Adam," Pat Nicely said. "I knew God would never do that twice. But it didn't mean I wasn't terrified."
Cavanaugh, who has been with the department a little more than a year, stopped by the hospital to see the Nicelys on Sunday and return Nicely's van keys. Kate Nicely hugged him and thanked him for saving her husband.
"He said, 'It was nothing. It was my job,' " Pat Nicely recalled.
Cavanaugh could not be reached for comment.
Kate Nicely said she plans to have a heroes party for all the people who helped her husband.
Adam Nicely suffered a bruised side and a cut near an eye, and was still coughing Monday. But his family said doctors expect him to make a full recovery, though he won't be able to drive for a while, given the seizure.
He said from his hospital bed Monday afternoon that he still could not believe what had happened.
"It didn't make sense," said Nicely, a manager for the Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins publishing company in Philadelphia. "Maybe it's a miracle. I can't imagine dying that way. It seems silly."
When he woke up Sunday night, he told his mother how sorry he was for the scare, and apologized to his father for not giving him a Father's Day gift.
Pat Nicely teared up.
"This is the best gift you could give us," Ed Nicely told his son.