Written by Kevin L.
Erskine & Erica J. Armstrong
AN EXCERPT FROMWater-Related
Death Investigation: Practical Methods and Forensic Applications
SUBMERGED VEHICLES can
be present in any jurisdiction possessing waterways for a multitude of reasons.
On occasion, vehicles are submerged to conceal the vehicle itself or the
evidence inside. Suicidal individuals drive vehicles into lakes and rivers as a
means to end their lives. In this instance, the vehicle upon recovery may have
the driver contained inside (Figure 1).
An occasional homicide
may be concealed as an accident by submerging a vehicle in a waterway with the
victim inside the vehicle. This was true in the highly publicized Susan Smith
case in Union, South Carolina. On October 25, 1994, in an effort to murder her
two young sons, Susan Smith placed them in their car seats and rolled her car
into John D. Long Lake, drowning both of them. She would claim to police that a
black man had stolen her car at gunpoint with her sons still inside, but she
was later charged with their murder after confessing to the act. During
testimony at her trial, a recovery diver would explain the limited underwater
visibility of about 12 inches at a depth of 18 feet where her car was located.
The diver explained how he pressed a light up against the window and could see
a small hand against the glass. The car was standing with its grill in the mud,
and the boys were hanging heads downward still strapped into their car seats.1
For these reasons, it is
imperative that the recovering agency process the vehicle for evidence. Upon
locating a submerged vehicle, the position of the vehicle underwater should be
documented. If possible, have divers determine the position and location of any
occupants prior to recovery. During victim removal, care should be taken not to
disturb any possible evidence. Once victims are removed, a cursory search
inside the vehicle should be made, if safety permits, to locate and seize any
possible evidence. In some jurisdictions, it is possible to recover the vehicle
with the occupants inside and transport the vehicle to the coroner or medical examiner’s
office for processing (Figure 2). It is highly advisable to have divers close
any doors or windows to minimize the loss of any possible evidence. Also prior
to recovery, have divers document any exterior damage to the vehicle since it
is likely the vehicle will be damaged during the recovery process. Damage will
be an important factor in determining the cause of any impact-related injuries
found on the occupants.
After the vehicle is
safely on land, extensive notes should document the following:
• What gear the
transmission is in (Figure 3).
• Radio on or off? What
station is it tuned to? Newer vehicles have buttons/toggles instead of on/off
knobs, and they have digital/LCD displays, and if the accident rendered the car
nonoperational, one may not be able to hear the radio or see a display. In
this instance, it would be necessary to obtain information from the powertrain
control module (PCM).
• Anything present that
could have been used to depress the accelerator, such as an axe handle or
• Any cigarettes,
liquor, or beer.
• Emotional valuables,
such as photos, ornaments, etc.
• Headlights on or off?
Is this consistent with time missing?
• Windows up or down?
• Heat or air
conditioning on or off, and is this consistent with season missing?
• Position of driver’s
seat and mirrors? Seat position can be documented by measuring from accelerator
to front edge of the seat.
• Ignition on or off?
Keys in ignition?
• Marine growth and body
damage (Figure 4).
• Wipers on or off?
Consistent with the weather when missing? The position of the blades? (If in
the up position, this would suggest they were on at the time of submersion.)
• Document speed on
impact with the water, if possible.
For newer-model vehicles
(starting with the year 2000), the powertrain control module (PCM), which is
often referred to as the “black box,” can be retrieved and analyzed by a
certified technician to determine many factors, including whether lights and
accessories were in operation and speed on impact. For assistance, contact
Vertronics at 1-800-321-4889. For older vehicles, the impact speed may be
determined by one of two ways. First, the impact may have bent the needle,
freezing it at that speed. Second, the impact may have caused the speedometer
needle to dent the soft metal backing at the speed of impact (Figure 5). All
these observations can be used to assist the investigator in determining if
foul play is involved, who was driving, time of day or time of year the vehicle
was submerged, and length of submersion. It is imperative that the investigator
maintain close contact with the dive team on the scene to ensure that all these
observations are documented before and after recovery.
In the fall of 1992, the
Michigan State Police conducted a study called the Submerged Transportation
Accident Research Project, or simply Project STAR. The study was conducted to
determine various characteristics of submerged vehicles, including the length
of float time to allow for a means of escape, length of time the power will
remain functional, and damage sustained upon impact with the water, and to
discount the belief that a pocket of trapped air remains in the rear of the
vehicle, allowing occupants to plan for their escape. During the study,
vehicles of various makes and models were driven off a floating dock to observe
float characteristics. The results were surprising. The study revealed that
ample time was available with all passenger vehicles to allow the driver to
unfasten his or her safety belt, roll down the window, and escape the vehicle
in less than ten seconds. Also, the power remained functional for over ten
minutes, but there is no trapped air pocket anywhere inside the vehicle. If the
vehicle entered water deeper than the length of the car, the car would flip
over on its roof, but if it was submerged in water shallower than its length,
it would land under water on its wheels. This study will aid investigators in
understanding submerged vehicle dynamics to determine if the damage sustained
to a submerged vehicle can be the cause of injuries found on its occupants.
A few years later, a
second part of the STAR Project was conducted, which tested float
characteristics of school buses. This study was prompted due to a fatal
accident in Alton, Texas. At 7:30 a.m. on September 21, 1989, a truck hit a
school bus and knocked it into a gravel pit filled with water. Twenty-one
children drowned and six were injured. This was the worst school bus accident
in Texas history.2 The study concluded that the average school bus
sank in less than 20 seconds, largely due to the implosion of the front
windshield upon impact with the water. This implosion of the windshield most
likely killed the driver or rendered him or her unconscious, preventing the
only adult on the bus from assisting the children in their escape. Also, the
quick influx of water and floating seat cushions blocked any chance for escape.
The smaller 25 passenger buses sank in just 9 seconds. This was due largely to
the failure of the engine cowling covering the engine, allowing water to rush
in at an alarming rate.
In Amsterdam, Holland,
in 1971, a 27-year-old male was in a vehicle that entered the water off a small
bridge at approximately 25 miles per hour. Impact with the steering wheel
caused several broken ribs and minor internal damage. His right leg was broken
just below the knee by striking the dashboard. He sustained blunt force trauma
to the back of his head. At first, the investigating agency believed this case
to be an auto accident resulting in his death by drowning, but there was no
damage to the roof of the vehicle or any heavy objects inside that could have
caused the head injury. This case was ruled a homicide at the conclusion of the
About the Authors
Erica J. Armstrong, MD is a forensic pathologist and
deputy medical examiner at the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office
(CCMEO) in Cleveland, Ohio. She is a graduate of Case Western Reserve
University School of Medicine. She completed her training in anatomic and clinical
Pathology at the University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center-Institute of
Pathology. She completed her training in forensic pathology at CCMEO from
2000-2002 under the mentorship of former Cuyahoga County Coroner Dr. Elizabeth
K. Balraj and the late Deputy Chief Coroner Dr. Robert C. Challener. She is
Director of Medical Education at CCMEO and utilizes the position to provide a
comprehensive educational experience to visiting medical students, medical
residents, allied health students, and other students and professionals with a
connection to medicolegal death investigation. She holds academic appointments
to medical and osteopathic schools. She is author and co-author of several
journal articles on the topics of forensic pathology, forensic toxicology, anatomic
and clinical pathology and the biological sciences. She has authored a textbook
on the topic of death reporting and death certification and maintains an
educational blogsite on this subject matter.
Kevin Erskine graduated from Hocking College in 1982 with an associate’s
degree in natural resources law enforcement. He also obtained mountain rescue,
search and rescue, and EMT certifications. He began his career with the Ohio
State Park Police in 1986 and developed the only State of Ohio dive team in 1998.
In 2000, he codeveloped the Children’s Ice Drowning Prevention Workshop, which
teaches children self-rescue techniques in the event of an ice accident. He
designed a multiagency training scenario for an airplane crash in Lake Erie.
Within months of the training scenario, an actual plane crash occurred within a
quarter mile of the training site. In 2005, he developed the Master Water Death
Investigator curriculum for the Ohio Peace Officer’s Training Academy (OPOTA).
He is an OPOTA-certified Master Criminal Investigator who has earned numerous
life-saving awards for rescues of drowning victims in the waters of Lake Erie.
He was recognized as "Citizen of the Year" by the Cleveland Fire
Department in 2006 for the rescue of an active drowning victim within his
jurisdictional waters. He has attended police diver symposiums in Hamilton,
Ontario, Canada; West Point; and Indianapolis. In 2011, he retired after 25
years of service to the State of Ohio. He currently serves as the training
coordinator for Hope Christian Church First Responder Team in Avon, Ohio, where
he lives with his wife and two sons.
(accessed January 25, 2010).
2. Donohue, W. A. 1993.
Michigan State Police, operation star: Submerged transportation accident research.
Searchlines 10(1), January/February.
3. Hendrick, W., and
Zafares, A. 1998. Homicide by drowning manual. Hurley, NY: Lifeguard Systems.