JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A 35-year-old woman who drowned after her SUV went off a narrow dirt road and slid into a Hanna Park lake Saturday night was able to call her husband before she died. That phone call allowed rescuers to find the Jeep Cherokee overturned in the water in time to save her 5-year-old daughter.
The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office said the woman was attempting to turn around when the vehicle went down an embankment and into the lake. Her husband called 911, but because first responders didn't have an exact location, it took officers on the ground and in a helicopter an hour to find the vehicle.
The first officer on the scene used a knife to cut through multiple airbags to free the two victims.
"It was lucky for the child that we found her when we did because there was very little air inside the vehicle," Sgt. B.W. Suydam said. "Had we not found her, had the officer not been able to pull her out when she did, we might be having a more tragic situation now."
Police said the child was transported to an area hospital in good condition.
The Sheriff's Office has not named the driver, but friends identify her as Kathy Paredes, who had spent the day at the beach with her daughter. In addition to her daughter, Paredes is survived by her husband and a 2-year-old son.
HOW TO HELP: GoFundMe fundraiser for Kathy Paredes
Paredes' parents said Kathy and their granddaughter were leaving a birthday party and she got lost. They said she held her daughter up in a shrinking pocket of air in the vehicle so she wouldn't drown.
"While she was swallowing dirty alligator-infested water, she was holding up her daughter so that she wouldn't die," Barbara Paredes said. "When police found her she was dead, but she was still holding up her daughter."
She said the fact that the 5-year-old saw her mother drown is heartbreaking.
Vacationers at the park said they saw a woman in an SUV driving frantically through the playground and picnic area Saturday afternoon. That was likely Kathy Paredes' vehicle.
"We saw this white Jeep Cherokee with dark windows that seemed to be lost or disoriented," Walker Bassett said. "They kept pulling into the playground area between the zipline and the playground area, stopping where they couldn't go any further, turning around and leaving."
News4Jax spoke with a woman who has been camping at Hanna Park for the past four months and has become familiar with the campgrounds.
"A lot of people fish there, but probably, I would say earlier in the year, I did see a car stuck in the exact same place,” said Rachel Johnson, a camper. “So, it’s hard to turn around there, I would say."
The dirt road Paredes was on is narrow with a small, grassy shoulder and water on both sides. There are no signs indicating it’s a dead-end and there are no barriers on the side of the road.
Sherri Lietch, a biker, spends months at Hanna Park and said she didn't know the road existed.
"There are no signs, and I know even in the campground, it's very narrow. Two cars can't pass each other, and people are constantly pulling over to let someone else come through, so this is a very narrow road. I can't imagine that somebody would even find their way back here," said Lietch, who's vacationing at Hanna Park. "I love the park. The rest of the park is great, but this is very isolated right here, and I'm sure she probably just got lost because there's nothing out here."
Paredes' parents said they want to see more signage throughout the park so that what happened to their daughter doesn't happen to anyone else.
The city of Jacksonville, which manages Hanna Park, released a statement about the drowning:
The city will review this area and other areas at Hanna Park for potential safety improvements that also preserve the natural beauty of the park. Our hearts are with the family as they mourn the loss of their loved one and recover from this tragic incident."