After rescuer Michael Kenwood died attempting to reach a stranded car during Hurricane Irene, some people aimed their anger at the driver of the vehicle for allegedly ignoring a road block and failing to notify police that the car was abandoned on Rosedale Road. A police spokesman even suggested to the press that the driver should be prosecuted, and that the department was considering charging the driver with negligence.
But a Planet Princeton review of police dispatch recordings, county emergency dispatch recordings, and investigative reports obtained through the state’s Open Public Records Act contradicts the official narrative presented by the police department. The records, obtained after a lawyer representing Planet Princeton threatened to sue the town, show that there were no barricades on the road when the car became stranded, and that the driver alerted police that the car was left on the road and was empty. The records, which include detailed interviews with the driver, police, and emergency personnel, raise questions about whether the tragedy could have been avoided, and chronicle what happened at the scene in the early morning hours of Aug. 28.
A New York City woman and her husband were visiting the husband’s parents in Belle Mead on August 27, the night the Mid-Atlantic region began to feel the impact of Hurricane Irene. Winds blew. Trees came down. People lost power. Rain poured. Basements flooded. Many roads were blocked by trees or were flooded.
The family decided in the wee hours of Aug. 28 that everyone had to evacuate the Belle Mead home because water was reaching the first floor of the house. They left the house and headed for a relative’s house in Lawrenceville. At least that was the plan. The woman led the way in her Volvo, her husband by her side in the front passenger seat. Her in-laws following behind in a second car, a sports utility vehicle. But Route 206 was blocked off, so the two vehicles turned off on Elm Road in Princeton Township.
The Volvo made its way to Rosedale Road and made a left turn. The driver didn’t see any barricades, and interviews and video footage later confirmed that there were no roadblocks on Elm or Rosedale at the time the car was first observed stuck on the road. Some law enforcement officials now say roadblocks had likely been put up, but could have washed away by then.
As the car headed west on Rosedale, it got stuck near the Greenway Meadow Park. The driver of the Volvo observed low-standing water near the park. As she drove into it, she stopped to back out because deeper water was ahead of her. Water suddenly rushed against the passenger side of her car. The force was so strong that her husband couldn’t open his door. The Volvo stalled and would not restart. The driver tried to open the sun roof, but it was stuck. Her husband forced it open manually so they could both get out. The couple then inched their way toward General Johnson Drive and were met by his parents, who had stopped their sports utility vehicle when they saw the Volvo backing up on Rosedale Road. The couple got in the parents’ car and the group headed to downtown Princeton. They went to the Nassau Inn hotel to try to get rooms there.
When the couple arrived at the hotel shortly after 4:40 a.m., they saw two Princeton Borough police officers outside, told them the car was disabled and was empty, and provided police with the make and model number of the car. A Borough police officer notified police dispatch about the Volvo at 4:47 a.m.
“I was just made aware by somebody being dropped off at the Nassau Inn that they had to leave their vehicle abandoned in the middle of Rosedale Road in the township near the park,” Det. Thomas Lagomarsino said. “Standby for the license plate if you could just give that to the township.”
“Okay,” said the dispatcher. “They have a vehicle there that was submerged in water…What kind of car is it, because the squad is about to launch a board to see if anybody is inside it.”
“It’s a grey Volvo,” Lagomarsino said. “And the car is empty. Everyone was able to get out.”
“This one is going to be a different one than the one they have totally submerged,” the dispatcher radioed back to Lagomarsino at 4:51 a.m.. “Do you have a call back for this person so the township can eventually maybe get back in contact with them at some point?”
In the darkness, as the storm raged, police and Princeton Township workers had been trying to find out if the car was empty. They came to Rosedale Road after receiving reports that a car was stranded there. Officers used a public address system to call out to the car but got no response. They asked the driver to honk the horn or step on the brakes, but nothing.
One officer who arrived at the scene observed the car facing west, submerged up to its bumper. Water was flowing from the Stony Brook Creek over the bridge, creating a current that ran south, and the water was rising swiftly.
The officer noticed that the rear hazard lights of the car were on. While the officers waited for the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad to arrive, at least two officers saw the car’s brake lights go on, casting doubt that the car was still empty.
After receiving the report about the Volvo, police tried to confirm whether the sedan submerged in water was the same car, but could not because of poor lighting conditions and visibility. One officer thought he saw the blue stripe of a New York plate, but couldn’t be sure.
The Rescue Team Arrives
At about 4:55 a.m. the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad team arrived. The water rescue team of Peter Simon and Michael Kenwood, wearing dry suits and flotation devices they had put on at headquarters, inflated the squad’s banana boat, and put on water rescue helmets. They then joined officers and, according to police reports, were told that there was a previous report of an abandoned vehicle on the road, and that the occupants were safe.
But according to police reports, there appeared to be at least one other vehicle on the roadway, with headlights on, and therefore they could not be sure if the other car was empty or not. Officers attempted again to read the license plate of the car on the bridge using a stronger pair of binoculars, but could not see anything because the water level was up to the car’s frame, about a foot high. The current was pushing the car sideways on the bridge.
The rescue group decided that the team would approach the vehicle to confirm its identity and determine whether here were occupants inside because they cold not be 100 percent sure it was the Volvo.
After the water rescue team assessed the situation, the pair decided to go ahead by foot without using the banana boat in the flowing water.
They took a position in the center of the roadway where it was highest, at the water’s edge, with Simon in the lead. They shuffled toward the car to minimize imbalance and identify potholes, manholes, and debris. Kenwood followed Simon, holding on to Simon’s flotation device.
About halfway to the car, Simon decided the two should turn back, because the depth and force of the water were increasing rapidly. Even if they could make it closer to the car, Simon realized they would never get close enough to complete their task, and decided the added risk was unwarranted. The water level was at mid-shin, but the flow alone was not strong enough to disrupt their stability.
The pair turned around, Simon in the lead again, with Kenwood following and holding on to Simon’s flotation device. About five steps into their retreat, Kenwood told Simon he was losing his balance and said he was falling. Simon felt a pull downstream, and attempted to compensate by walking with the pull instead of fighting it. His feet found the curb, and he tried to brace himself from moving downstream further, but the current, or possibly the tug from Kenwood, was too great, and he was pulled over the curb into the water again.
The two were swept about 30 feet downstream when their line snagged on a tree. Simon was able to get on his knees, but could not see Kenwood because of the low tree branches. He called out to him a few times but heard no response. Simon yelled for Kenwood to pull the breakaway strap on his flotation device, but again there was no response. Simon then cut the line connecting them to keep from being dragged downstream, and Kenwood floated downstream. Simon radioed to tell the squad he had to cut the line and that Kenwood was trapped under water. A few minutes later Kenwood was pulled out and brought to shore. He was in cardiac arrest and CPR was started.
Simon grabbed a tree to keep from being swept up in the water. He waited and gave the okay signal while rescuers took care of Kenwood. After Kenwood was taken to the University Medical Center at Princeton, a rescue team used a telephone pole as an anchor, threw Simon a rescue line, and then guided him to shore. He then went to the hospital so he could be with Kenwood and his family.
Police confirmed later that the car was the same grey Volvo reported abandoned by the New York couple.
Kenwood died later that night at the hospital.
Editor’s note: Planet Princeton received the borough police dispatch recordings and other information with the help of Montclair lawyer Richard Gutman. The borough, on the advice of its legal counsel and in consultation with the township lawyer, initially rejected the public records request, arguing that the materials were the subject of an ongoing investigation. Gutman pointed out to the borough lawyer, among other things, that records kept or maintained prior to an investigation are not exempt from disclosure under the Open Public Records Act just because they become part of an investigation.
A day after Planet Princeton and Gutman objected to the denial, the borough released the records. The borough lawyer said the records were being released because the Princeton Township investigation had been concluded.
Planet Princeton also filed public records requests with Mercer County and Princeton Township and received all the information this week, including recordings and, in the case of Princeton Township, investigative reports.