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Woman escapes sinking car

by Alan Lewis Gerstenecker
| September 10, 2013 10:33 AM

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RETR Marshall and Long

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RETR Retrieval with Boat in Background

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RETR Short and Strap

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RETR Tow Truck Tires Come Up

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RETR Wallet Retrieved

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RETR Car Coming Out

Like so many, Julia Long and William Marshall were enjoying their Labor Day weekend. The couple had just finished floating one of the most-popular stretches of the Kootenai River — from River Bend Restaurant to Osprey Landing.

At 7 p.m. Sunday, the couple pulled their raft out of the river near the boat ramp. Long walked to the parking lot to retrieve her car so they could begin loading gear near the shore.

What happened next was a harrowing experience, and one Long won’t soon forget.

Having turned the car off and set the parking brake, Long exited the car to begin loading gear. After exiting the car, the 1990 Honda Accord began rolling backward toward the water.  Long franticly re-entered the car, but before she knew it the car was floating in the swirling lagoon near the ramp.

“It was out there, and she was just sitting in the car,” Marshall said. “I think she was in shock. I think she just panicked. She nearly drowned. She was very lucky.”

Marshall estimated the car drifted out in deep water, about 15 feet.

Long said she sat there a moment at a loss.

It was then that Edwards, who had fished the river, was paddling to the ramp in his single-person pontoon inflatable.

“Water wasn’t quite up to the window yet. I told her to roll the window down,” Edwards said of the instructions he gave floating near the passenger side of the car. 

With combined coaxing of Edwards and Marshall from the shore, Long tried the window button.

“I kept trying to put the windows down, but I couldn’t,” Long confessed. “I had turned the ignition off and … so the windows wouldn’t (roll down).”

Then, in an instant, Long turned the key and hit the window button.

“I was surprised the windows still worked, that they weren’t shorted out yet,” Edwards said. “When she got out, I told her to hang on to the (pontoon), as I pulled her away from the car. That was a floating piece of iron. It was going to go down quickly.”

What transpired next depends on who tells the story.

Marshall and Long agreed the car took about three minutes to round the rocky bend before the river swallowed it in the main channel almost directly below the Osprey Landing lookout platform.

“As it filled with water, the engine end started dipping first,” Marshall said. “It went around the corner.  The engine (front end) was directly down. When water filled the trunk, it was gone. The whole thing took about three minutes.”

Edwards concurred with Marshall’s description. However, he said it was much quicker than that.

“I would say the whole thing took about a minute,” Edwards said. “Sometimes, in that situation, time seems much longer than it is. It’s just good I was there when I was. Five seconds later, and something drastic could have happened. It was just a miracle of timing.”

Edwards said as the car drifted out and the current caught the large object it began moving quickly.

“(The timing) was a good thing for everyone involved,” Edwards said. “It’s by the grace of God that someone was there. Time has a way of slowing down when you’re in that situation. I think the whole thing was a minute or less. Water goes where it wants to, and it usually wins.”

Besides being shaken, Marshall and Long were OK physically. Both refused medical treatment.

On Tuesday, after the extended Labor Day weekend, they were back at Osprey Landing when David Thompson Search & Rescue members teamed to retrieve Long’s brown Honda Accord from its resting place in the main channel.

“It’s in about 12 feet of water,” said scuba diver Darren Short. “Yes, pointing upstream, resting on its hood.”

The retrieval exercise involved Water Rescue Director Brent Teske, who led the operation, two scuba divers, another pair of safety officers downstream situated with a raft, a rescue boat with three people that stood sentry upstream with its engine running positioning the craft in a nearly stationary point in the swift current. There also were rescue workers on the shore ready to assist.

Other agencies involved included the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department, the U.S. Forest Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the county Emergency Management Agency.

When all the principle retrieval people were in position, primary diver Short proceeded into the river to locate the car. After what amounted to about 10 minutes in the water, Short emerged to inform Teske that he believed he could position a tow strap through the suspension so the car may be towed to the surface.

On another trip, Short secured the strap while second diver, Brandon Huff, of the Sheriff’s Department, directed the tow cable to the strap.

What followed was an orchestrated recovery of the vehicle. 

“It was an excellent coordinated effort by all agencies involved,” said Vic White, the director of the Lincoln County Emergency Management Agency.