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Vehicle submergence: Rare and dangerous

DICKINSON, N.D. -- Questions linger as to if it was possible for three Dickinson State University softball players to escape their vehicle before drowning in a stock pond northwest of Dickinson.

Last heard from on Sunday evening, Kyrstin Gemar, 22, Ashley Neufeld, 21, and Afton Williamson, 20, were found Tuesday afternoon in Gemar's Jeep Cherokee, submerged in the 12-foot pond.

Lt. Rod Banyai of the Dickinson Police Department said there is no way to tell how fast the vehicle sank.

Banyai said while the vehicle's windows were up and the doors were unlocked, there is also no way to tell how or if the women tried to escape.

"When a vehicle is submerged, the electrical system shorts out so rolling the windows down or even unlocking the door becomes an issue," said Dickinson Fire Department Chief Bob Sivak.

When a vehicle leaves a road, landing in deep water, its surface float time may be 30 seconds to four minutes, according to Lifesaving Resources Inc. Web site, a water rescue training and consulting corporation.

About 6 inches to 2 feet of water can float a vehicle off its wheels, according to the site.

Dickinson Rural Dive Rescue member and Dickinson Rural Fire Department Chief Curt Lefor said water can seep into all vehicle cracks and vents and will fill up quite quickly.

About 1,500 vehicle submergence incidents and 600 related deaths occur each year, according to the Web site.

Area rescue experts said quick-thinking and swift hands are vital to an escape.

Windows should be opened immediately, he said.

If the vehicle has not filled up and despite a large amount of pressure from outside water, windows can still be broken from the inside, Lefor said.

Vehicle glass can differ per make and model and several newer, higher end models use nearly unbreakable glass, Lefor said.

Because side windows are most often made with tempered glass, they will shatter, not just spider web, Lefor said.

"If you had a sharp object to be able to put the force on a specific point, it'll break," Lefor said.

Lefor said having a sharp, heavy object in a vehicle to use in a submergence situation is advantageous.

Vehicle escape tools such as life hammers and spring-loaded center punches can be used to cut through seat belts and break windows.

"I don't know if you'd actually think of it at that moment," he said. "Having it readily available all the time is going to be a rarity."

Sivak said breaking a windshield is virtually impossible and if the vehicle is not filled with water, the door cannot be opened as pressure is not equalized.

Lefor also said doors cannot be opened until water has crept up the door and the pressure inside the vehicle has equalized.

"Don't panic, because you're going to have to wait for that pressure to equalize," Banyai said.

Lisa Call is a reporter for the Dickinson (N.D.) Press. Both the Press and the Bemidji Pioneer are owned by Forum Communications Co.