Riding his bicycle Tuesday afternoon from his house in East Falls to Boathouse Row - about to start a rowing workout on the Schuylkill - Brandon Eck couldn't help but enjoy the view.

"I was looking out at the river, kind of admiring how peaceful it looked," Eck said.

Into that idyllic scene burst an out-of-control car that crashed into a light pole, Eck said, before it "bounced its way down the embankment and into the river."

Eck jumped off his bike and dropped his backpack. There was no time to think how this had been the second traumatic event he had come upon in recent months along Kelly Drive. He ran to the Schuylkill's edge and began yelling to the partially submerged car. "No response," Eck said Wednesday.

Three or four other people quickly gathered. Eck, who had turned 24 the day before and is about to start his third year as a medical student at the Philadelphia School of Osteopathic Medicine, asked someone to call 911 and took off his shoes and shirt. "The car was sinking fast," Eck said.

Eck didn't know that the driver of the sedan, 55-year-old Sgt. Stephen Naughton, a 31-year police veteran, had already suffered a heart attack. First into the water, Eck got to the driver's side window and shook Naughton a couple of times, he said, and still got no response. He tried to unlock Naughton's seat belt but couldn't do it, he said, and "the car was sinking. In about a minute or minute and a half, we're both underwater."

Several others jumped in, including an off-duty police officer, and one man cut the seat belt with a knife. It was very hard to see what was going on in the murky water, Eck said.

"Five of us got the victim out," Eck said. It helped that his window was already open, but the door was locked. An assistant coach from the St. Joseph's Prep rowing team also had taken a motorboat to the scene. They all got Naughton over to the side of the river and up to the embankment. "People tried to give him CPR," Eck said.

While the group worked to save Naughton, Eck said, it didn't enter his head that Naughton may have already died. He apparently never revived. "You're not thinking about what could be," Eck said.

He also didn't know until later that Naughton was a policeman. Eck had cut his foot diving under the water and was taken to Hahnemann University Hospital, where Naughton also had been taken and was pronounced dead.

"Countless police officers came in to thank me. I didn't find out who the victim was until after Mayor Nutter came in and left. He thanked me for my courageous acts and said it would not go unnoticed," Eck said.

Eck is a member of the Malta Boat Club and on Dec. 6 had walked in the boathouse and heard "this guy yelling, 'Help, help!' There was blood on the floor."

Fred Duling, a 66-year-old Malta member, had broken his neck. He had been working alone at Malta, possibly hanging Christmas decorations, when he fell over a stairway banister. Eck called 911. He knew not to move Duling and ran to get a blanket. Duling survived, having fractured his spine in four places, injuring his spinal cord at the base of the neck. He broke his jaw, nose, cheek, and an eye socket and now is at a rehabilitation center. Eck said that dealing with that traumatic situation helped him react quickly when he saw the car jump into the river.

Growing up in State College, Pa., Eck had been an Eagle Scout and was an 800-meter runner for Villanova's track team. He had once been a Big East Conference all-academic selection. After graduation, Eck had sprained his ankle and was looking to work out. He asked his father, who had rowed out of Malta years ago, for some tips.

Eck took to the new sport fairly quickly and now hopes to race competitively. He's been told he probably won't be able to row for three or four weeks, he said, after suffering a partially torn tendon in his left big toe.

Thinking back to Tuesday's events, Eck appreciated the kind words from the police officers and the mayor but also said of the outcome, "It's just a hard pill to swallow."

Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.