Union, SC Seven Drown In Van, Aug 1996


Union, S.C. - The brooding lake where Michael and Alex Smith drowned two years ago claimed a Union County family of five and two other victims Saturday night after their van rolled into the water.
They had come to John D. Long Lake to see the place where Susan Smith killed her children and the granite memorial that helps keep their memories alive.
But while ANGELA BLACKWOOD PHILLIPS, 22, stood on the bluff above the water with friends, the vehicle with her husband and children inside rolled between the memorial markers.
A young tree planted in the Smith boys' memory did not stop the moving vehicle but toppled under its weight. The Chevrolet Suburban slid down the steep embankment into 20 feet of water.
Unlike Smith, who ran the other way while her children went into the lake, then lied for nine days about where they were, ANGIE PHILLIPS went after hers but couldn't save them.
Her body was found inside the van where she had apparently loosened the seat belts of some of the children but failed to free the others before she drowned.
Her husband, DENNIS TIMOTHY PHILLIPS, 26, also died in the water.
So died CARL SIDNEY WHITE, 29, of Campobello, S.C., a friend who dived in after the sinking Suburban.
The dead children were COURTNEY BEAULANA PHILLIPS, 4; MELEANA JADE PHILLIPS, 23 months; and KINSLEIGH SKYLAR PHILLIPS, 4 months, all children of TIM and ANGIE PHILLIPS, and 3-year-old AUSTIN DAKOTA "CODY" ROODVOETS of Inman, S.C., whom WHITE and his girlfriend were baby sitting.
There were three survivors. WHITE'S girlfriend, SONYA PHILLIP, and her children, ASHLEY and DANIELLE, 11 and 12, watched it all happen. SONYA PHILLIP ran in the dark with one of the girls to a nearby state highway, where they flagged down a passing motorist to get help.
It was too late.
Sonya Phillip told authorities that her group had come to the lake after a barbecue. It was around 9 p.m., pitch black around the unlighted lake area, as it was the night of Oct. 25, 1994, when the Smith brothers, Michael, 3, and Alex, 1, died. TIM PHILLIPS stayed in the van with the younger children, and while everyone else got out to look at the memorials to Michael and Alex, he trained the lights of the van onto the markers. There was no moon out. Suddenly, the lights began to move.
The next few hours were eerily reminiscent of those other drownings that still define Union for people who don't live there.
The four divers called out to recover the bodies were among those who had searched for Michael and Alex Smith.
Divers could only see 2 feet in front of their faces in the murky water, said Cpl. Mark Huguley of the State Department of Natural Resources.
And law enforcement authorities tried to figure out what went awry. Union County Sheriff Howard Wells said it's not yet clear what happened.
There were no side marks on the grass, and no real clues to what caused the Suburban to roll. The vehicle's mechanics are being checked, he said.
But Wells said there also was no evidence of any sinister motives behind the deaths, and all indications pointed toward a horrible accident.
Authorities were pursuing one theory that TIM PHILLIPS, who was behind the wheel, may have suffered some health problem at the time the van rolled into the water.
"The crime scene yielded little information as to an attempt on behalf of the driver to try to do corrective steering, braking or any maneuver that would have stopped the vehicle from going in the water," Wells said.
"It appears there is no evidence, no eyewitness information, no information gained from talking with extended family members that there would have been any reason to believe this was anything more than a very tragic accident," he said.
Autopsies will be performed on all victims, Wells said. Results should be known Tuesday.

Indianapolis News Indiana 1996-09-02