When Leah Manche’s car veered into the Mississippi River in Moline early Monday, a police officer happened to be nearby and spotted her taillights on the water.
Despite the almost-instant discovery of the accident, no attempt was made to rescue the 28-year-old East Moline woman from her sinking car. Her body was recovered by a dive team more than five hours after the accident.
Rich Clark, a dive master who happens to live directly across River Drive from where Manche’s car entered the water, was told by police he could not attempt a rescue. Even though most of the car was out of the water and near the shoreline when his barking dogs alerted him to the wreck, Clark was told to stay away.
Two days after the accident, tears came to his eyes as he told of the frustration of standing by while the car disappeared under the water.
“They told me it was not a rescue but a recovery,” Clark said Wednesday. “They told me it was most likely stolen. They said people dump cars in the river all the time. There was no license plate (the car was new to Manche).
“There’s a question that everyone should be asking: Why didn’t anyone try to rescue her?”
The day after the accident, Deputy Fire Chief Ike Sederstrom was asked that question.
“It’s pretty much a self-rescue situation,” he said. “Even if the fire station is a block away, the chances of getting down there, getting to a person in the vehicle, in 40-degree water, in those conditions, is pretty slim.”
He described conditions on the river early Monday as cold, windy, choppy and dangerous.
When the fire department was notified by police, Sederstrom said, there was no mention of a body in the river or in the car. However, he said, first responders to a vehicle-in-the-river call treat every situation as if a person also could be involved.
He said the city’s rescue boat circled the area of the submerged car for about an hour, marking its location for the volunteer divers who were asked to perform a daylight recovery of the red Pontiac Grand Prix.
“We surveyed the area to make sure no one was in the water,” he said. “When we found no one, we concentrated on finding the vehicle.”
Davenport Fire Chief Lynn Washburn said her department would have been in a similar situation.
“We do not have a dive team,” she said. “All we can do, if someone is in the water, we can pull them onto a boat. If it (a vehicle) is two feet off shore, our people could be held by a rescue line, but they can’t perform a rescue in the river because they don’t have training.”
To attempt to pull someone from a submerged or sinking vehicle, Washburn said, firefighters would have to be certified divers, equipped with weights, air tanks and specialized underwater equipment for getting inside a vehicle.
Clark, who is a certified rescue diver with experience in icy water, said he understands the danger in attempting a rescue in a situation like the one he encountered right outside his front door.
“I have a lot of respect for police and firefighters and for those divers,” he said. “Someone could drown attempting a rescue like that.
“My plan was to try to jump onto the car and break the back window out. It would have equaled out the water inside the car and created an escape route. There’s a chance I would have been sucked through the window from the flow of the water going in, but I was willing to take that risk.
“I believe I would have been able to get out. I had all my gear. I was only 10 feet away.”
Moline police were asked a series of questions Wednesday, regarding the department’s response to the accident, including why police assumed the car was stolen, when they realized it was occupied and why Clark was not permitted to act.
Department spokesman Detective Scott Williams replied, “The police officer who found the vehicle in the river and initiated the call for other units was right to be concerned about the safety of the citizen who wanted to take on such a dangerous act in the Mississippi River under the conditions present.”
He said a review of the emergency response by the police department was found to be appropriate.
Clark said it seems to him something more could have been done. But he also is aware any efforts could have been dangerous.
He also pointed out that some drowning victims have been resuscitated after being under cold water for more than an hour, because their organs are sustained by the low temperature.
“I know I need to accept what happened, but I just wanted to try,” he said. “I could’ve easily gotten hurt. I’m sure it would be even scarier for the police who were there who don’t have any dive training.”
His wife, Gail, said she cannot shake the image of the car bobbing on the surface of the water. She placed flowers at the scene and said she would like to go to Manche’s funeral.
“It’s still in my head, and I hate it,” she said. “It’s so upsetting, and I didn’t even know her. I watched that car sink. It took six minutes to sink, and I know that, because I looked at the clock.
“It was terrible.”
Told of the Moline and Davenport fire departments’ explanations they have no gear or training for attempting vehicle-in-the-river rescues, Rich Clark shook his head.
“Everyone I know who has a car is getting a center punch for Christmas,” he said. “It’s just tragic, you know?”
A center punch is a pick-like steel tool.
The accident is still under investigation, and the cause of death will be determined at a coroner’s inquest in January. Manche had an 11-year-old daughter.
An autopsy was not performed, and toxicology results are pending.