updated 03/06/2014 AT 12:00 PM ET
•originally published 03/06/2014 AT 1:25 PM ET
Suddenly, bystanders heard several children inside a dark-colored minivan screaming, “Our mom is trying to kill us” as the car suddenly veered left, straight into the surf.
“I put my vehicle in park and ran as hard as I could to get to the van,” Tim Tesseneer, 38, tells PEOPLE.
Tesseneer, along with lifeguards, helped rescue the kids as the car began to jostle in the water. “We started trying to get the mom to turn the car to get out of the surf,” he says.
The men were seen frantically prying open the minivan’s hatchback and doors to rescue the woman and her three children, ages 3, 9 and 10, before the car became fully engulfed in the water. One lifeguard was seen walking out of the surf with two children in his arms.
The driver, Ebony Wilkerson, 32, a pregnant woman from South Carolina, was reportedly fleeing domestic strife at home.
“Her sister had called dispatch and told them that she had been talking about demons that day before she left the house,” Police Chief Mike Chitwood said, according to local reports.
Wilkerson and her children were all taken to a local hospital.
“I’m just glad we were in the right place at the right time,” Tesseneer says. “It’s a bad situation but it could have been a lot worse.”
Reporting by MICHELLE BOUDIN