Five UGA students went on a road trip. They returned home as heroes

Five first-year students from the University of Georgia were on a road trip to Savannah on Friday, March 15, 2024 when they rescued a family whose vehicle was submerged in a Burke County creek south of Augusta. The students, some still in wet clothes after the encounter, are (from left to right) Kaitlyn Iannace, Clarke Jones, Jane McArdle, Molly McCollum and Eleanor Cart. COURTESY BURKE COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Five first-year students from the University of Georgia were on a road trip to Savannah on Friday, March 15, 2024 when they rescued a family whose vehicle was submerged in a Burke County creek south of Augusta. The students, some still in wet clothes after the encounter, are (from left to right) Kaitlyn Iannace, Clarke Jones, Jane McArdle, Molly McCollum and Eleanor Cart. COURTESY BURKE COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE

The University of Georgia referred to the young female students as the “Fearless Five.”

The label didn’t exactly fit, though. On a recent afternoon in a murky creek in rural Georgia, the five first-year students, all still teenagers, had fears. They were losing hope.

Still, they didn’t give up. And a distraught mom whose SUV flew off a two-lane road says the UGA students are likely the reason why her two young sons didn’t die.

“There is a reason to every little thing” that happens in our lives, one of the students, 18-year-old Clarke Jones, now believes. Seconds matter.

This week, Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to honor them for their heroism.

On the Friday afternoon before St. Patrick’s Day, the five friends from the same sorority were excited to finally be on the road after a hectic week of school work in Athens. The holiday festivities in Savannah were supposed to be epic and they would be meeting friends down there.

The five had known each other for only a matter of months, but their friendships were blooming. On the ride they were laughing and listening to music. A conversation about cheese biscuits led them to veer off course for an impromptu stop at a restaurant near Augusta and then to swing by a Target in an unsuccessful attempt to find glittering green St. Patty’s Day beads to wear.

Back on the road, they took an unfamiliar route. Eventually they were mostly passing through woods on two-lane Murray Hill Road in Burke County south of Augusta. There weren’t a lot of other vehicles out there, they remembered later. Cell phone reception was spotty. Where are we exactly? they thought.

Jones, a business major from Macon, was driving as they approached a small bridge. Only she and one of her friends in the back seat, Molly McCollum, saw what happened next. In front of them, just beyond the far end of the bridge, there was a sudden flash of white and a surprisingly large cloud of dust.

That wasn’t another vehicle was it?

Jones swerved her car onto a little dirt drive. It turned out to be a state boat ramp. Ahead, they saw something barely sticking out of the dark water of Brier Creek.

Five first-year students from the University of Georgia were on a road trip to Savannah on Friday, March 15, 2024 when they rescued a family whose vehicle was submerged in a Burke County creek south of Augusta. The driver, a mom who had lost control of the vehicle before it flew off a nearby road, credits the teenage women for likely saving the lives of her two young sons. COURTESY BURKE COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

A woman appeared in the water and pulled herself on top of what turned out to be a 2003 Toyota Sequoia SUV laying on its driver side, almost entirely swallowed up by the creek.

McCollum, a biochemistry major from Birmingham who wants to be an ob-gyn, can’t fully clear away certain images and sounds from that day. Such as the desperate way the woman yelled out to them. “She said, ‘My kids are still in there! My kids are still in there!’”

“We are coming!” McCollum remembers shouting. By then, she was already in the chilly water, which was soon over her head as she was joined by others.

There were times in the creek, McCollum now says, that she and her friends felt helpless. But there was no one else around.

“It came down to us. It came down to full instinct. You really didn’t know what was the right thing to do.”

UPDATE: GMA shares 911 call of the dramatic rescue

Expecting a weekend of house hunting

Cori Craft remembers enjoying the quiet as she drove her 21-year-old SUV up from the family’s home in Savannah. She planned to meet her husband for a house-hunting trip in the Augusta area, where he had recently started a job as a chemist. Her two sons, eight-year-old Korben and four-year-old James, were fast asleep, buckled into their booster seats behind her.

She was taking a route she hadn’t gone before. The 32-year-old mom saw a bridge up ahead and thought there was a turn coming up soon, so she says she glanced down at her GPS. She felt a bump and lost a little control, thought she’d be able to regain it, but then couldn’t. Only later did she learn the vehicle likely went airborne and probably flipped at least once.

“Next thing I knew, I hit the water. It was completely submerged right off the bat. My entire car,” Craft says. Her side of the car, the same one little James was on, rested at the bottom of the creek. Her cellphone was gone. Her glasses were gone, which was a big issue because she is severely near sighted. She was buckled in by her seatbelt, underwater, in darkness.

“I started moving my hands around in the murky water trying to find an exit.” She later reasoned that she must have slipped out through the Toyota’s broken sunroof.

When she surfaced, the students from UGA were calling to her. So was her eight-year-old.

“I told him I was going to get to him, to just keep his head up out of the water.” He was still trapped in his seat, even as it floated up some, his head just above the waterline. He couldn’t reach the seatbelt buckle to unlock it.

They had practiced swimming in a backyard pool, but he wasn’t comfortable without floaties around his arms, and she knew he couldn’t make it to the creek’s shore. And somewhere in the SUV, in the water below, was her four-year-old. How could she save him?

Underwater in a rural creek

Jones and McCollum scrambled up on the vehicle. Adrenaline was carrying them. Jane McArdle, a 19-year-old advertising major from Charlotte, and Kaitlyn Iannace, a business major from Raleigh who would turn 19 two days later, were in the water nearby, clinging to the vehicle. Eleanor Cart, a business major from Richmond, stood on the shore, calling 911 to get help.

McCollum struggled to hold a heavy door open and the mom managed to free her older son. Iannace attempted to swim him back to the shore, but it was too difficult, so they lifted him up onto the side of the SUV that was out of the water.

Craft was distraught and pleading, McCollum remembers. “The mom kept saying, ‘There’s another child! There’s another child!’”

Where? They couldn’t see him through the water. Had he been down there too long?

McCollum had been a summer camp lifeguard at one time. The work included training exercises. They would practice doing a sweep of the lake bottom, as they would if they were looking for a drowned camper. “I guess that prepared me.”

As more water rushed into the vehicle, McCollum and the mom took turns holding the door open and reaching down into the murkiness to feel for the child and the seat buckle that strapped him in. McCollum couldn’t feel him. “All odds seemed to be against us,” she says.

And then the mom had him. She dragged him up. His color was off. His lips were either blue or white. He wasn’t coughing, wasn’t breathing.

Jones had been a lifeguard the summer before. Not her favorite job. It was boring. She mostly told kids to stop running or provided bandages for minor scrapes. But she also had learned CPR and somehow, in the middle of the creek, balanced on an SUV, it came back to her. There was no time to take the little boy to shore. She began compressions on top of the vehicle.

“Some of us couldn’t handle it and had to look away,” McCollum says.

Jones is haunted by the mom’s words in that moment. She kept yelling, “My baby! My baby!”

Other people had gathered on the shore and one yelled out CPR advice. Craft thinks she remembers rubbing her son James’ leg, hoping for him to be revived.

McCollum thinks Jones might have been doing CPR and rescue breaths for a minute or two. “It felt like everything was going by in a blur, but also the longest period of time ever.” Then the boy coughed and breathed. Finally, he cried.

“It was like the happiest tears I had ever heard,” McCollum says.

Jones and Iannace looked at each other and started crying, too. Probably less than five minutes had passed since they first saw the vehicle in the water.

Two of the girls swam one of the boys back to shore. A bystander retrieved the other one from on top of the SUV.

Police and emergency workers arrived. The boys and the mom were taken to a hospital. The youngest was kept overnight and released the next day.

Craft says things would have been far different without those college students stopping to help. How did they know what to do?

“I don’t believe I would have been able to get the door open and hold it open long enough to get my oldest out and then going to get my youngest out without the door falling back down and not being able to get it open.”

Michael Ford, a sergeant with the Burke County Sheriff’s Office who responded to the scene, called the students’ actions extraordinary and heroic.

Scottie Sanford, the police chief in nearby Sardis, said the teenagers acted immediately. “These young ladies saw a tragedy occurring and reacted without thought or concern for themselves. Their quick action saved lives!”

UGA’s president, Jere Morehead, issued a proclamation last week for their “exemplary act of courage and teamwork,” saying they “represent the very best of the University of Georgia.”

‘Look harder to find those moments’

After coming out of the water, the students talked with law enforcement officers and, eventually, still in their wet clothes, they got back in their vehicle to resume the remaining two-hour drive to Savannah.

They didn’t want to stop. They called parents. They considered whether to play music or not. “How are you supposed to act after something like this?” says Jones, who coughed for much of the ride after ingesting water from the creek.

In Savannah, they enjoyed time with friends and visited Lafayette Square. But on Sunday, the memories of the trauma ate at some.

They tried to sort through what had happened and the events that might be with them for the rest of their lives.

Jones says she feels a bond with the other women unlike anything she’s ever had before. And she wonders about time. Specifically the few seconds that made the difference between seeing a family in need and missing them altogether.

McCollum wonders if they all are still in shock. She also suspects she’s changed in some longer-term way. She and Jones talk about being more “reactive” in life going forward.

What they did, McCollum says, “is kind of something you would hope anyone would do” in the same situation. But she’s been thinking maybe life is full of less dramatic but equally powerful opportunities to be in the right place at the right time to make a difference.

“Maybe it is not a sinking vehicle with submerged children. You just have to look harder to find those moments when you can use your best judgment to help people out.”