FAIRBANKS - A mother and her two young children escaped injury after their sport utility vehicle and the U-Haul trailer it was towing crashed through a city bridge railing and fell 20 feet onto the frozen Chena River.
Heather Haase, 21, and her two sons, 112-year-old Zachary and 4-month-old McKenzie, were examined at Bassett Army Community Hospital on Monday but had no injuries, said Fairbanks Police Officer Gary Korshin. Haase recently moved to Fairbanks from Washington with the military.
The four-lane bridge is the main crossing of the Chena in downtown Fairbanks.
David Hale, 40, a branch manager for Willis of Alaska, witnessed the accident from his office on the second floor of the Key Bank building. He said he heard a familiar sound - a car's tires skidding on the ice, gravel and pavement as it approached the stoplight on the street below.
"I heard her hit the brakes and looked up and she was fishtailing through the intersection," Hale said. "She overcorrected and it was like the car flew over that railing. Then I saw that trailer come catapulting over the top of the car."
Hale, wearing dress shoes, raced out of the building to the river.
The nose of the car hit the ice and the Isuzu fell back onto its wheels.
The U-Haul trailer came unhitched and flipped over the car, landing on its roof about 10 feet in front of the car before coming to rest on its tires.
"I thought they'd be under the ice or dead," Hale told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
Instead, a stunned Haase was getting her two boys out of the car.
"For somebody who just went over a bridge I couldn't believe how fast she got out of that car and how fast she got those kids out of the car," Hale said. "She had it together."
Hale carried the younger child, still strapped in a car seat, up the riverbank while Haase carried the older boy. The baby had some glass on its head from a broken rear window but otherwise seemed fine.
"It wasn't even crying," Hale said. "It was smiling and happy."
Police Officer Korshin credited the car's safety devices for saving lives. All in the car were restrained and the air bags deployed.
"That shows you the value of air bags, seat belts and child seats," Korshin said.
The accident occurred at about 10:30 a.m.
Other witnesses said the trailer jackknifed to the right, forcing the vehicle left. When Haase turned the wheel to the right, she overcorrected and the vehicle turned at almost a 90-degree angle, jumped the curb and crashed through the steel railing.
"It was just instant," said Becky McCauley, who was following directly behind Haase.
McCauley couldn't believe Haase and her two boys weren't hurt. "I thought she was dead," she said. "I could just see that car going straight down into the ice."
McCauley, 70, stopped her car on the bridge and looked over the railing.
"I looked over to see her bringing out the kids," McCauley said, still shaken by the incident almost an hour later.
While the U-Haul trailer is likely what caused the accident, it also may have been what saved the lives of Haase and her children, according to witnesses.
"That trailer hung onto the railing for a second before it came loose," Hale said. "That slowed the momentum of the car down."