LA FFs Valiantly Tried to Rescue Teens from Submerged Car

June 21, 2022
St. George firefighters arrived shortly after a car launched into a roadside pond and submerged two Ascension Parish teens, but rescue efforts were hampered by murky conditions.

Jun. 21—St. George firefighters arrived in short order after a car launched into a roadside pond and submerged two Ascension Parish teens.

But the depth and cloudiness of the water so hampered first responders that the girls, both 16, couldn't be pulled to the surface for more than a half hour after Sunday's fatal crash, authorities said Monday.

Firefighters arrived within five minutes of the first 911 call at 11:52 a.m., but even then, the only signs of the location of the already submerged Chevrolet Impala were witnesses who saw the car go under and the bubbles at the surface of the 15- to 20-foot-deep pond, a fire department spokeswoman said.

As other agencies scrambled to respond, six St. George firefighters tried in vain for 30 minutes to go under water, find the car and save the Prairieville teens, Caroline Smith and Chloe Hamilton, but were unable to reach or even see the car at the bottom.

"It's very deep, very murky waters," said Firefighter Meg Kling, spokeswoman for the St. George department.

The private pond is located along the east side of Perkins Road on a large vacant lot along the southern bank of Bayou Manchac in Ascension, just over the East Baton Rouge Parish line.

The pond edge is actually at a higher elevation than Perkins Road, also known as La. 427. On Monday, tire ruts, a shattered light fixture and damaged bushes and tree marked the path the car took. An athletic bag and flip-flops still floated in the water, while collections of spent plastic water bottles were in spots along the pond's bank.

The Impala went off the right side of Perkins, across a gravel drive, over a shallow ditch, up an embankment and over the top edge through a short distance of grass into the cloudy, bluish pond.

Smith was a student at Dutchtown High School and would have been a senior in the fall, Ascension public schools officials said. Hamilton didn't go to Ascension public schools and it wasn't immediately clear on Monday where she went to school.

Attempts to reach the families of both girls were unsuccessful Monday.

The Rev. Jhontre Green, pastor of First Pilgrim Calvary Baptist Church in Geismar, said Smith's family was part of his congregation.

Smith served in his church's youth ministry and in annual dramatic performances for Easter and other holidays, Green said. He said she was a bright young woman with big aspirations for her life.

"When I spoke with her about the future that she wanted, she had some high expectations ... on the future. So, you know that's what makes it more tragic is the fact that, you know, when you see someone so many dreams and aspirations leave so early, that's always a difficult circumstance," Green said.

He said Smith's family is handling the tragic death as best as can be expected.

Lena Le, 17, a rising senior at Dutchtown High who is from Geismar, said she's known Smith since they were in middle school and, for a time earlier in high school, ran cross country and track with Smith.

Le said Smith was really outgoing person and a jokester who tried lived life to the fullest.

"She'd light up the room, and she'd make everything fun," Le said.

State troopers said they aren't sure yet why Smith, who was driving, failed to negotiate a right-hand curve before the crash into the pond, but said the car vaulted into the pond after it hit a tree.

Troopers also don't know if seatbelt use is a factor in the crash and the cause of death remains unclear.

Christian Reed, spokesman for State Police Troop A, said autopsies are pending as the investigation of the crash continues.

St. George fire officials said the pond's depth was beyond the physical ability of firefighters to reach the car without underwater breathing equipment.

Kling said that the breathing equipment firefighters use to enter burning and smoke-filled buildings can be used at shallow underwater depths, but the pond was too deep for St. George's land-based equipment.

Among the responding agencies, divers with the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office were able to get in the water about 30 to 33 minutes after the first 911 call, Kling and a sheriff's spokeswoman confirmed.

Despite the lack of visibility, divers found the car in about 15 feet of water using a type of regimented search pattern and pulled the girls to the surface, said Casey Rayborn Hicks, the spokeswoman for the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office.

"That is a very quick response time for them to travel to the scene and put on all the appropriate gear for diving," East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said in a statement. "The divers located the vehicle approximately seven minutes after entering the water."

Once the girls were out of the water, emergency responders started to attempt life-saving measures and both girls were taken to area hospitals, deputies and St. George firefighters said.

But state troopers said later that the youths had died at the scene.

Even with the car's location known, the sheriff's divers afterward had to use their sense of touch to find the right spot to attach a tow strap so the car could be pulled free of the pond and hauled away, Hicks said.

"This is a tragic situation, and my heart goes out to the families affected," Gautreaux said.

School officials announced Smith's death in a message to parents Monday and urged anyone with concerns to call school administrators or counselors.

"Please know that we are here to help in any way we can. We have extra counselors on campus today for any summer school student or staff member who needs help coping with this tragedy," the statement from Dutchtown High Principal Carli Francois and Bluff Middle Principal Dr. Matt Monceaux says.

"Please keep Caroline's family and our whole school community in your thoughts and prayers," they added.


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