Shortly after Susan Smith was sentenced last year to life in prison for killing her two young sons, a pair of granite monuments went up on the shore of John D. Long Lake to commemorate it as a place of peace. Saturday night, seven people who had come to visit the spot drowned after their vehicle rolled into the water.
The seven, including four children, were among a group of 10 people who had driven out to the rural lake and parked with their Chevrolet Suburban's headlights shining on the memorial to the Smith boys, 3-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alex, Sheriff Howard Wells told reporters today.
Made of black granite, the two markers are each about 5 feet tall and 2 feet wide and sit about 60 feet from the water's edge. Directly alongside is the boat ramp down which Smith let her car roll, with her boys still strapped into the back seat.
About 9 p.m. Saturday, after five of the group had gotten out of the vehicle, it started to roll toward the water with four children and an adult inside, said Mike Willis, a spokesman for the state Natural Resources Department.
It passed between the memorial markers and knocked over a tree planted in the Smith boys' memory as it rolled down the steep, grassy embankment into about 20 feet of water.
One adult, the mother of three of the children, dived into the lake to help, and drowned with the others. The father of the children was behind the wheel and the vehicle's gearshift was found in park, Wells said.
"There's no indication this was an intentional effort," he said. "The families are very grief-stricken. It's quite a shock to them. . . . The sheer number of people that were lost. An entire family."
Killed were the Phillipses from Union: Tim Phillips, 26; his wife, Angie, 22; and Courtney, 4, Meleana, 1, and 4-month-old Kinsleigh, said Teresa Mims, a cousin.
Also killed were Carl White, 29, of Campobello, and 3-year-old Austin Roodvoets, of Inman. Both towns are about 40 miles northwest of Union.
Angie Phillips and White dived into the water to try to save those in the truck, Wells said. He said they freed some of the children from the vehicle, but not in time to save them.
"There's going to be some who say the lake needs to be drained. There should have been guardrails built," said Leonard Roark, a retired textile worker from Union.
On Oct. 25, 1994, Smith, distraught over a love affair, released the parking brake on her car and let it roll down the boat ramp with her sons inside. For nine days, she insisted that a black man had commandeered her car, and she begged tearfully on nationwide television for her sons' safe return. Eventually she confessed.
Smith was sentenced in July 1995 to life in prison after a trial that shocked this town of 10,000 people with stories of child abuse, suicide attempts and adultery. Smith, then a 23-year-old secretary for a company that makes decorative trim, was having an affair with her millionaire boss and with his son.
Prosecutors argued that it was unrequited love for the son that led Smith to John D. Long Lake. In her purse was a letter from the rich young man breaking off their affair in part because he did not want to be a father to the boys.
On Sept. 3, 1995, David Smith, the boys' father and Susan Smith's estranged husband, dedicated the lakeside memorial to the children, saying: "John D. Long Lake is not a place to come and think about the sadness of what happened. It is a place to come now and remember the boys as they were."