Spate of South Florida canal crashes claims lives, prompts call for safety

The placid and omnipresent bodies of water in South Florida can turn lethal for motorists and their passengers. Since 2004, at least 129 people have drowned in 108 water-related crashes — most of them into canals — in the tricounty area, records show.

The difference between death and survival can sometimes be as simple as staying calm and knowing how to safely exit a vehicle that suddenly ends up in the water.

In recent weeks, at least four vehicles have plunged into canals in Broward and Palm Beach counties, with varying consequences. In those incidents, two people were killed, another was seriously hurt and three were unharmed.

The survivors were thankful to be alive, but non-survivors' families demanded safety improvements to the places where their loved ones died.

"This is what I'm going to fight," Robert Filion said Wednesday of pushing for the addition of signs, barricades or guardrails along the C-42 canal in Plantation, where a Nissan Altima had gone into the water, killing Filion's wife and a co-worker. "There's no reason for this to happen."

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The recent accidents:

At about 5 a.m. Wednesday in Plantation, Sidney Ambroise, 22, safely escaped from a Hyundai Sonata he was driving after it landed in the C-42 in the 1200 block of Old Hiatus Road. Ambroise squeezed unscathed through the driver's side window as the car sank.

Also Wednesday in Davie, two people escaped from of a silver Toyota 4Runner that went into a roadside canal near Southwest 136th Avenue and 18th Court. They appeared unhurt.

On Friday in Plantation, Filion's wife, Amber Filion, 43, and her co-worker Joseph Stephenson, 51, both of Davie, were found dead inside a Nissan Altima submerged in the C-42 near Old Hiatus Road and Tara Drive, just north of Interstate 595.

About 5:35 a.m. on May 19 in Delray Beach, a 2006 Lexus driven by Michael Patton, 49, of Delray Beach, struck a guardrail as he drove south on Hagen Ranch Road and failed to stop at a traffic light. The car plunged into a canal and he was badly injured.

Ambroise, survivor of Wednesday's Plantation crash, said he recalls falling asleep at the wheel and accidentally driving into the water. He attributed his survival to staying calm and opening his window as the car began to sink.

"I just tried not to panic," Ambroise said. "I just took a deep breath. I saw the water start flowing in and tried to squeeze out."

"Thank God he's OK," his mother Caroline Lilavois said. "He's my only child."

Filion, who had been separated from his wife but remained her friend, said he visited her crash site on Tuesday, seeking answers.

"I want to raise my voice," Filion said of his demand for safety improvements. "Two families were destroyed with this tragedy."

A Plantation city official referred questions about the C-42 canal to the South Florida Water Management District, the canal's owner and operator. A district spokesman said it would be up to the authority overseeing the canal's adjacent roads to review the issue of guardrails. It was unclear Wednesday whether that entity was the city or a state agency.

Still, guardrails aren't always a surefire way to prevent canal drownings.

The Delray Beach crash that left Patton critically injured involved a guardrail. After his Lexus failed to stop at a traffic light, it struck a guardrail, authorities said. His car then went under the guardrail and into the canal, they said.

The crash remains under investigation, and officials haven't said whether the guardrail failed in any way. Patton remained hospitalized Wednesday.

State agencies, responding to waterway deaths, have taken steps to prevent or reduce them.

In 2005, officials began installing cable barriers along 280 miles ofFlorida's Turnpikeand along other turnpike-owned roads next to canals and ponds that were more than 60 feet away from the highway and at least 3 feet deep.

The turnpike began planning the canal-protection program after three boys were killed in a 2004 crash. They were riding in a church bus that veered off the road into a canal near the Glades Road exit. At the time, the state required guardrails if there was less than 60 feet between the road and canal.

State lawmakers dedicated the barrier system to 7-year-old Alex Ware, killed in 2002 when his mother's SUV was forced off the turnpike and into a canal near Lake Worth.

Such barriers aren't foolproof. In October 2008, five people, including three children, were killed when a van they were riding in flipped over a cable barrier on the turnpike near Lake Worth and into a canal.

The Florida Department of Transportation spent $4 million on cable barriers to prevent cars from going into canals along a 50-mile stretch of Alligator Alley in Collier County. The barrier, which include strobe lights that become activated when a car hits them, was installed after a sharp rise in fatal crashes into canals there.

Overall, traffic fatalities

have been on the decline since the 1990s, and water-related fatalities account for only a small share of them — fewer than 1 percent in South Florida in 2010. Yet these types of accidents are particularly horrifying. Previous Sun Sentinel research has shown that most victims survive the initial crash, only to be trapped and drowned in an often overturned car.

Other motorists have lived to tell of their canal crashes.

Survivors in Broward and Palm Beach counties in recent years have ranged from a 17-year-old West Palm Beach girl to a 76-year-old Coral Springs woman who calmly told dispatchers over her cellphone, "I'm inside the car, and I'm in the water" — as the water reached her neck.

The woman soon afterward was rescued by emergency responders.

Staff Database Editor Dana Williams and Researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.


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