PARK TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Two girls managed to escape a car after it crashed into Lake Macatawa because the back hatch opened — though it’s not yet clear how — after which they huddled together for warmth for hours before they found help.
The girls’ father, 52-year-old Jon Dowler of Otsego, was killed in the crash that happened around 2 a.m. Sunday. Authorities say Dowler accidentally drove into Lake Macatawa where Jenison Avenue ends north of Lakeway Drive west of Holland.
‘SOAKING WET’ IN 30-DEGREE WEATHER
The girls, ages 8 and 10, told deputies they and their father were headed home after visiting a family friend. One remembered seeing it was around 1:30 a.m. on her tablet.
“They then stated they kind of fell asleep and they were woke up to the sound of the crash and then hitting the water,” Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Eric Westveer said.
The car started slowly filling with water.
“They said that the back hatched opened,” Westveer said. “What we don’t know yet is how that back hatch opened because there’s not a lever on it like a normal side door. But they stated the back hatch opened and they were able to crawl out of that and then they swam to shore at that point.”
“Divine intervention, or it could be as simple as dad hit the button,” he added.
The girls came ashore at a private yacht club. It was the middle of the night — no one was there. They tried to get help at nearby cottages but most were empty because they are summer homes.
“They were soaking wet and it was 30 degrees out,” Westveer said.
He said “survival mode” kicked in.
“They did tell us that they had seen a TV show where they learned that huddling together, cuddling together, creates body heat that they can share,” he said. “So they found an enclosed porch and that’s what they did.”
It was seven hours before they found someone to help them.
ONE GIRL BAREFOOT, OTHER HAD ONE SHOE
Around 9 a.m., Kevin MacLeod heard a knock on his door — odd, he thought, for a Sunday morning.
“I came downstairs and I opened the door and I just saw a little red face from a little girl, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s really weird. That’s very strange,'” Kevin MacLeod recalled. “So then I opened the door and she’s standing here with one shoe on, barefoot, and she just starts going like a mile a minute.”
He got the girls inside while his wife called 911. The other girl was barefoot. His wife got both of them dry socks and blankets.
“They were wet to the touch,” MacLeod told News 8, saying he was surprised they had avoided frostbite.
He said the girls told them they initially tried knocking at the yacht club because it looked like a church and then a few more doors without success.
“They told us that they huddled on the porch of the house directly across the street from us,” MacLeod said. “I assume maybe it was exhaustion or nerves that just sort of kept them hunkered down.”
It didn’t take long for emergency responders arrive. Within 45 minutes, the girls were taken to the hospital to be treated for exposure. They were later released.
“…I’m glad we were here to help them,” MacLeod, who has lived at the house for only a couple of years, said. “I’m glad that the right people were able to come and help them. To my understanding, they’re home with mom. They don’t have any serious, lasting injuries. I’m glad that they’re doing well.”
“I hope that they get the help that they need to process this…” he added. “Losing a parent’s tough at any age.”
DRIVER MAY HAVE BEEN DISORIENTED
Investigators determined the crash was accidental. Westveer said speed may have been a factor and also acknowledged that the stretch of road where it happened is dark.
“At this point, we believe that the father became disoriented, not familiar with the area, which ended up (with) him ending up in the water just because of the way that road is constructed there,” Westveer said.
Jenison Avenue dead-ends into the lake without any barricades. It’s not an official boat launch but is used as one by neighbors during the summer.
Westveer pointed out that the road is straight, without curves that would encourage drivers to slow down. He said his investigators are looking for surveillance videos from nearby homes to determine how fast Dowler was going.
“At the end of the road where the pavement ends, there’s about a 20-foot stretch before the water that’s kind of sand and gravel,” he said. “We did not locate any tire marks in that area, so that tells us that at that point, he was airborne before going into the water.”
After the girls got out, the car kept floating deeper into the lake. Around 2 p.m. Sunday, some 12 hours after the crash, dive crews found it between 150 and 200 feet out. Dowler’s body was inside.
Westveer called it a “freak accident.”
“I don’t think that it needs to be marked better. It is properly marked,” he said. “It’s not a high-volume roadway where these types of situations can occur regularly. To my knowledge, we’ve never had an incident like this at that location like this before.”
Dowler’s family declined to comment Monday, asking for privacy.
—News 8’s Joe LaFurgey contributed to this report.