Dorothy Schilke slammed the brakes a dozen times, but it did her no good -- her Ford Explorer sped through a grassy embankment before flying into a Sunrise lake five years ago.
A school bus had struck her, sending her off the road and leaving a jagged hole in the back of her SUV. Schilke panicked, but she escaped a drowning death when the water sucked her out of that hole and pulled her to the surface.
"I was never prepared to survive something like that," said Schilke, 67, a former Pompano Beach resident who now lives in Central Florida. "I mean, who thinks they'll ever end up in the bottom of a lake?"
Accidents that send vehicles into waterways are common in South Florida, where scores of canals, lakes and ponds snake closely to our roads.
Last week, an 8-year-old boy drowned after authorities say his mother became ill and lost control of her car, plunging the vehicle into a South Miami-Dade canal.
On Wednesday, a New Hampshire man died when his car crashed into a Coral Springs lake.
The SunSentinel analyzed fatal crashes where vehicles went into bodies of water between 2004-2007 in the Tri-County area. The newspaper found:
Of the 74 fatal water crashes during that three-year period, Palm Beach County led the region with 29. Broward County followed with 23 crashes and Miami-Dade with 22.
Most of the 89 people killed were drivers, but 24 were passengers, including 10 children.
The dead ranged from a 5-month-old baby to an 87-year-old man.
More than a third of the accidents were in daylight; more than two-thirds happened in clear weather.
The crashes were scattered from the rural roads near Lake Okeechobee to the southern border of Miami-Dade County. There were 13 along Florida's Turnpike, Interstate 595, Interstate 75 and the Sawgrass Expressway.
"They're accidents, and they happen fairly often around here, but tragedies can be easily prevented," said Capt. Jim Bishop with Broward County Fire Rescue. "We don't have to turn the water into a deathtrap."
Escaping a submerged vehicle
Because the accidents that hurl cars into waterways happen so quickly, it's easy to panic.
Take deep breaths and remain still to avoid serious injuries.
Wait until the vehicle is in the water to unstrap your seatbelt. If you unbuckle too early, the impact of the crash could slam you against a seat or dashboard, knocking you unconscious.
Once you hit the water, unbuckle your seatbelt as quickly as possible. It's important to carry scissors or a blade in a secure location like a glove compartment in case the seatbelts won't unlatch.
Tools kept in a door's sidepocket will be flung around and lost when the car hits the water.
Sometimes vehicles will float for a few minutes before the water's suction brings them down. That's the best time to lower windows and escape.
Don't open the door -- water could flood the cabin, pulling the vehicle faster into the sludge.
If you have kids on board, chances are you'll have to help them unfasten their seatbelts or release them from their carseats. Again, staying calm is critical. Quickly unbuckle yourself so you can help the children.
Power windows don't immediately short out. Lower them and swim out.
If the windows don't lower, bust a side or rear window with a strong tool like a hammer or a spring-loaded punch. Don't bother trying to break the windshield -- that glass is too strong and will resist most blows.
Grab any child onboard and lead them toward the opening. Push them away from the vehicle, then follow them out.
Sometimes vehicles flip over because their heavy motors drag them down quicker into the water. At least 19 of the vehicles involved in the crashes analyzed by the SunSentinel overturned once they were in the water.
If this happens, brace yourself against the seat of the car, one arm extended against the roof to provide support. Unfasten your seatbelt and try to shatter a window to escape.
Don't worry about gathering your belongings. Once there's an open space, swim out of it, following air bubbles toward the surface.
Witnessing a crash
A few good Samaritans have had a hand in saving victims trapped in submerged vehicles.
Tom Winders, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper, was driving home from work on June 23, 2007, when he noticed an overturned Acura in a turnpike canal, just west of Lake Worth.
Winders jumped into the water and pulled out Maria Gamarra, 20, and Raul Erazo, who is now 23. Gamarra died later at Delray Medical Center. Erazo survived and lives in Wellington.
"If you're another driver or pedestrian who sees a car fly into a canal, it's tough to know whether you should help out or not," Winders said. "It's a split-second decision so everybody responds differently."
The best way to help is to immediately call authorities and let them know how many people you saw in the car, Bishop said.
Detailed descriptions of the victims and vehicle will help officials determine what kind of rescue operation they'll run.
"We also know it's tough to just stand back and wait for us to get there, especially when people's lives are at stake," Bishop said.
Onlookers who know how to swim can attempt to dive in after the crash victims; others with large vehicles like Jeeps or SUVs can try pulling the submerged car onto shore.
"You just have to make sure you're comfortable in the water if you're going to jump in there. Officials have to rescue the people in the car; they don't want to be rescuing you too," Winders said.
Staff Researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun