By: Dr. Scott R. Harden
As I awoke on Sunday, November 27, it was clear that the horrific occurrences of yesterday were not just a bad dream, but a lingering reality that still haunted my soul. The events that had transpired the night before were as unpredictable as they were unimaginable.
The water was frigidly cold and instantly grabbed hold of my body like a giant vise as I dove into the water. Responding on sheer adrenaline, I swam toward the car that was now half submerged in the water of Lake Lanier. The weight of engine had pulled the front end of the car down and the driver was already up to her shoulders as I reached the car. The only thought in my mind was “how could this have possibly happened”?
At the beginning of this very day, Peggy Gough sat next to her phone waiting for a call from her good friend of nearly forty years, Katie Quarmby. Just several days past Thanksgiving on November 26, 2005, Peggy was ready to celebrate her 91st birthday. “We’re ready to come and visit you later today”, stated Katie on the telephone. Katie, six months younger than Peggy, could not wait to see her friend that she had traveled hundreds of times to see at her Lake Lanier home. The travel time from Katie’s Buckhead home to Peggy’s home in Cumming seemed to have grown exponentially through the years with the onset of age, impaired senses, and a tremendous increase in traffic.
For those very reasons, Katie knew that it was not a good idea for Peggy to travel to Buckhead as she volunteered several days prior. It was at this point that Katie, an old friend of the family, shared this information with me, which resulted in my volunteering to drive Katie to Cumming to celebrate her friend’s birthday.
Born in the Midlands of England in 1914, Peggy immigrated to the United States around 1940. She had made the decision quite clearly to dedicate her life to health care and ultimately became a therapist, earning a terrific reputation in the medical field. Peggy was an artist, and enjoyed numerous hobbies that included carving wooden figurines, cross-stitching, and gardening.
Peggy proved to be delightful and had more energy than anyone half her age. My wife, Kathy, and two children, Brittany and Spencer came along to meet Peggy as well. After going to lunch and spending a great day together, we all opted to go next door and visit Peggy’s 103 year old neighbor. Peggy got behind the wheel of her Toyota with Katie in the back seat on the driver’s side. We followed behind them in our car in route to her neighbor’s house — and then it happened.
At the bottom of the driveway, Peggy became disoriented for some reason undetermined, and hit the gas pedal instead of the break. The car suddenly veered to the left of her neighbor’s house and down a path that was uncertain in the darkness. At first I thought there was a driveway that she had ventured down, but quickly realized she was not in control of her car. I instinctively jumped out of our car and took off running to help them. I was shocked to look ahead, and only by the moonlight reflecting off the water, could faintly observe their car floating in the lake, approximately 30 feet off shore — and sinking.
“The engine was screaming”, stated a neighbor later that evening, witnessing the car speeding downhill at a speed estimated to be 50 mph. The car became air borne as it went over a 4 foot embankment. Peggy had not removed her foot off the accelerator, certain it was the break, and once in the water the wheels of the car now propelled it far out into the lake.
I had run nearly 300 feet downhill, when suddenly a dock came into view. I ran down the dock, to get closer to the car. Motion lights suddenly came on and shined out onto the lake to intensify how far the car had already begun to sink down into the water. Without hesitation, I jumped in the water, and swam as fast as I could to get to Katie and Peggy. The car had somehow spun around and the passenger side was facing me. As I swam up to the car, the right rear door was locked as I pulled on the handle. I yelled for Peggy to press the unlock button. She was clearly disoriented, but after fumbling for the button, was able to unlock the doors. This proved to be a heroic action for Peggy. I pulled on the handle of the door and was met by tremendous resistance from the water. Adrenaline flowing, I was somehow able to pull open the passenger-side rear door. With water up to her shoulders, I immediately reached across the seat and pulled Katie from the car.
At the moment, when Katie was clear of the car, I was faced with the hardest decision of my life. My first instinct was to let go of Katie and try to get to Peggy. I had but a split second to decide. I knew if I let go of Katie, fully clothed and in shock, she would have gone under water. If I didn’t let go of Katie, Peggy would be under water in moments. I acted in the only way I could have, and brought Katie to the dock and to my awaiting family that entered into Katie’s rescue and pulled her from the water.
I turned to go back for Peggy, and the car was now already under water. My only hope was that the bottom was not very deep. Further, I was going into hyperthermia, and could barely breathe. A neighbor happened on the scene just then and jumped in, but despite numerous attempts to dive down to the car, it was too deep to reach it. This was a horrible moment in my life. I normally could dive down 20 feet, but the cold water zapped me of all my strength, and physically shut me down. Within a short time officers and EMT arrived and despite numerous attempts, they too could not get to the car, again because of the intense cold water and the pitch blackness once under water.
Peggy drowned on her 91st birthday. The reality remains colder than the frigid water of that evening. I saved a life but was unable to save two. I feel tremendous anguish and despair over this tragedy. Five minutes prior to us departing for her neighbor house, I took pictures of Peggy to send her of her 91st birthday.
During the time the car was under water, a turn signal was constantly flashing. It signified the location of Peggy trapped inside of her car. The light continued to blink for a long time. That light became a fixation for many of the people that stood on the dock and stared down at what was now a watery tomb for poor Peggy. I could not help but think of this flashing light signifying God’s Beacon to guide Peggy’s soul to heaven. Over the course of several hours, that light began to flicker and then slowly but gradually faded out, and I know it was then that Peggy’s soul ascended to heaven on her 91st birthday.