JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A 35-year-old woman drowned after her SUV overturned in a lake at Hanna Park but rescuers pulled her 5-year-old daughter from the submerged car alive, according to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office.
Investigators said the woman was attempting to turn around on a narrow dirt road when the vehicle slid and overturned into the water. She called her husband, who called 911.
First responders spent more than an hour looking for the car, even using a helicopter in the search. The first officer on the scene then 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.
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."
Johnson said weekends at the campgrounds have been packed with people.
"So much effort went into finding them,” Johnson said. “We saw the helicopters. We saw the police. They certainly were making such a great effort.”
It happened on a one-way road with no signs indicating it’s a dead end and no barriers on the side of the road. There's just a small, grassy shoulder.
The road the 35-year-old mother went off is surrounded by water on both sides and goes into the dead end.
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."
Lifeguard Gabriel Olphert, who has worked at Hanna Park for two summers, said Sunday that moments before the car drove over to that road, he spotted it driving erratically through the park’s playground and picnic table area.
“I saw this woman in the white Jeep Grand Cherokee. She drove down this path down here, and then she went up toward the park over here,” Olphert said. “She sat there for a couple seconds and then backed up (and) went around the zip line a couple times.”
The driver then did about 10 loops in the parking lot area near the playground, Olphert said.
He tried knocking on the Jeep’s window, but the woman wouldn’t roll it down, he said.
“So we walked to get the ranger, and he opened this gate to let her go, and then she just drove straight down this path, and she drove into the lake and died,” Olphert said.
A vacationing couple, Walker and Debbie Bassett, said they also saw a white Jeep driving frantically through the playground and over sidewalks.
"It just seemed like they were disoriented because they kept following the same path over and over again like they were trying to get to the other side (of the) parking lot -- almost like they were following their GPS and couldn’t get to where they wanted to go,” Bassett said.
Police have not confirmed if the Jeep Grand Cherokee pulled from the lake Saturday night was the same one Olphert said he spotted.
We also spoke with an officer who patrols the park and who jumped in the water to help. He didn’t want to go on camera, but said the road is rarely used and it’s mostly for maintenance and to track alligators.
The investigation continues.