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Safety: Tire tracks lead rescuers into mystery

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

It was only a matter of time.

Tire tracks that began with a broad arc of black rubber on Reunion Drive, jumped the bike path at the corner of Willbrook Boulevard and continued between the longleaf pines on the edge of the Tradition Club golf course rolled over the lip of the pond that surrounds the seventh green. No tracks came out; neither from a car nor a driver.

Midway Fire and Rescue arrived after getting a call at 6:38 a.m. Saturday. Swimmers were the first to search for the car. The dive team from the Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office was called when no car was found. The pond covers a little over one and a half acres. Golf balls sit on the mud just beyond arm’s length. There’s a sharp drop beyond that shallow fringe, but the water is only 10 to 12 feet deep. It is murky, the divers said after their search also came up empty. The deputies launched a johnboat from the edge of the pond and dragged the bottom.

Sam Hodge, the county director of Emergency Management, arrived with a drone. Rescuers thought its camera might pick up the shadow of a car below the water’s surface, empty except for the ripple of a soft south wind.

“There’s a high index of suspicion,” Fire Chief Doug Eggiman said. The drone flew over the pond, Midway put a crew in the johnboat and Lt. Jim Edwards of the sheriff’s office waded into the pond in a wetsuit. Six hours after getting the call there was still no car.

The car, estimated to be the size of a Ford Focus and traveling about 85 mph, clipped a small stop sign on the bike path, leaving a smudge of black plastic from a side mirror and scattering the sign and pieces of the post on Willbrook Boulevard. It’s a neighborhood where residents are quick to call 911 when something its out of the ordinary, deputies and firefighters said. They don’t think the debris was there for long. The dew was still on the grass when firefighters arrived, Eggiman said. They saw one set of tracks.

The urgency of the search gave way to a deepening mystery as the hours passed. No one had called to report a missing person. If there was a car in the pond, it began to seem more likely the driver had walked away and was afraid to come forward. State troopers arrived with the first rescue workers and did the groundwork for an investigation, but without an actual accident there was no more for them to do.

Investigator A.J. Kohut of the sheriff’s office searched the scene from the water’s edge to the bend in Reunion Drive where the car had hit a curb and gone airborne for about 6 feet. He came up with a cellphone that he turned over to Lance Cpl. C.W. Graham of the Highway Patrol. He spoke with one of the many bystanders who had stopped to inquire about the progress of the search, a woman who said she had walked her dog along the cart path around midnight and seen no sign of a car.

Could it be the car began at the water’s edge and accelerated toward Reunion Drive? “I’m just spitballing,” Kohut said. Sgt. Angela Carter pointed out the sign debris wouldn’t have ended up on Willbrook Boulevard in that scenario.

Towing a car from the pond would have left marks in the grass. Had the car gone in with its front wheels and backed out, the rear wheels would have left a mark in the wet grass.

With no evidence anyone walked away from the pond, the call went out to Horry County to borrow a portable side-scan sonar. It was broken. The closest agencies with a similar unit were in Sumter and Savannah, Ga. Eggiman and his wife Eve drove to Bass Pro Shop in Myrtle Beach, a 60-mile round trip. They returned with a $500 Humminbird Helix 5 sonar, sold as a fishfinder.

Sgt. Chuck Weaver and Deputy Mike Bryant of the marine patrol attached the sonar to a 6-foot section of aluminum tubing. Master Firefighter Will Tayloe watched the monitor. It took just 15 minutes to scan the pond. “I could see the bulkhead and the tree roots,” Tayloe said. There was no car.

Eggiman declared the search at an end. It had occupied about 20 public safety workers for 10 hours.

“It would have been good if somebody had called us,” a trooper said.

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