Divers Jim Dean, Tony Rutledge and Ben Wexler look over the Kia Rio they helped retrieve as it is pulled out of Fort Patrick Henry Lake on Wednesday afternoon. The driver attempted to take her life by driving into the water. Photo by Erica Yoon.
KINGSPORT — Two recent Sullivan South graduates saved the life of a 21-year-old Sullivan County woman who drove a car into the lake at Warriors Path State Park on Wednesday afternoon.
Lindsey Witherspoon, 18, said she and her friend Kim Richards were at the park to drop off her 15-year-old brother Graham and his friends for a football game on the soccer fields when Richards saw a car pull across their path and down the bank to the lake.
At first, the girls thought it was a runaway car. A closer look revealed a woman struggling inside. Authorities have identified the woman as Mariah May, no address available.
Witherspoon, a former lifeguard who swam at South and now swims at King College, said all she could think was, “I’ve got to get in the water.”
She ripped off her shirt, jumped in the frigid water, and swam about 100 feet out to the sinking 2005 Kia Rio without another thought.
Richards, a freshman at Furman College who plans to major in psychology, was “the more logical one” who immediately called 911, Witherspoon said of her fellow Sullivan South graduate.
Park Ranger Jerry Adams was there to help within minutes of the 911 call, the girls said. Members of the Warriors Path Volunteer Fire Department and Sullivan County EMS followed soon after.
May broke the window out herself, Witherspoon said, eager to give the woman due credit. May was beating on it when she reached the car. She helped the panicked woman out of the car and pulled her ashore as she fought to keep both their heads above water, a difficult feat that called upon her years of swimming experience and lifeguard training.
Once the shirtless, shivering Witherspoon got May to the bank, someone handed her a jacket to cover up. Other Good Samaritans stepped up to offer them assistance as well — with blankets, dry clothes, etc.
Some of the witnesses spoke with May before she was transported to Holston Valley Medical Center for treatment, the girls said. They didn’t get a chance to. Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Tom Saylor said he believed she suffered only minor scrapes in the incident, but was badly shaken.
At the time, the girls were on their way to watch “P.S. I Love You.” Although the excitement of the day meant no movie outing, they said the boys did go back to the park later for that football game.
“She’s my hero for the day,” Richards said of Witherspoon’s deed.
SCSO spokesman Capt. Keith Elton confirmed in a press release that the near tragedy was an attempted suicide. Officials said they planned to speak with May at the hospital but could provide no immediate insight into why May tried to take her life the day after Christmas.