Car pulled from Crater Lake after 1,100-foot plunge

Even the owner likely would have had trouble identifying the 2,500 pounds of crushed metal sitting on the northwestern rim of Crater Lake late Wednesday morning.

One clue could be found in the words printed on the visor hanging from what was once the frame of a windshield: "Air Bag Warning — Flip Visor Over."

Sans tires, rims, muffler, bumpers and seemingly sand-blasted of much of its shiny black paint, the "thing" was the remains of a 2003 Volkswagen Passat that had tumbled 1,100 feet over the rim into the edge of the lake on Sept. 11.

"I expected it to be less of a car from what we saw down the slope," observed Pete Reinhardt, the park's chief ranger who initially investigated the accident. "I was kind of surprised this much of the car was intact. And that's a good thing."

Car owners Shauna McHugh and Tobias Swanson of Ashland had stopped to enjoy the view from the North Junction Scenic Overlook. After they stepped out of the vehicle, it rolled through an opening in a stone wall and over the rim.

Their dog, an Akita-Dingo mix named Haley, jumped out of the sun roof at about 600 feet and suffered a few cuts and bruises but was otherwise healthy after the ordeal, officials said.

Looking like a giant dragonfly, the K Max K-1200 helicopter from Swanson Group Aviation LLC in Grants Pass used a 200-foot cable and a heavy-duty cargo net to airlift the debris to a nearby parking lot Wednesday morning.

It was the first time a helicopter had been used to pull a car from the lake, park officials said. In fact, a car hadn't plunged into the lake since 1922, they added.

After retrieving the main part of the car, the pilot returned to pull up a 600-pound bundle that included tires, rims and other parts that broke away during the descent.

The helicopter crew later replaced the cargo nets with a large grappling hook to remove five large pieces from the side of the rim.

The main section of the car containing the engine and gas tank had plunged into a pool about 10 feet deep on the western edge of the lake, the nation's deepest at some 2,000 feet.

"We wanted to make sure that when the winter storms come and the snow and rains wash down the avalanche chute, that it doesn't push it into the deeper part of the lake where we wouldn't be able to retrieve it," explained park spokeswoman Marsha McCabe.

As it was, the vehicle caused very little pollution to the lake, world-renowned for its clarity, she said.

"They estimate at the most there was about 13 gallons of fluid in the car," she said. "The gas tank was apparently half full. Gas dissipates very quickly."

The helicopter, normally used for logging, firefighting and construction work, is capable of lifting up to 6,000 pounds, even at 7,000 feet above sea level, the elevation of the rim, said Jeff Allen, director of business development for the helicopter firm.

"What was left of the car weighed about 2,500 pounds but the car was 10 feet under the water," he said. "When you are pulling something out of the water, it weighs more than it normally would at first. But the K Max performs very well at high altitude."

How much do they charge an hour?

"It's negotiable," Allen said of the Volkswagen retrieval operation. "This is a job we did for the Department of Interior. I'm sure they are negotiating with the insurance company."

The National Park Service is working with American Family Insurance on the cost of recovering the vehicle, officials said. An insurance company representative was at the site on Wednesday but was unavailable for an interview.

"Initially, we had funding from the regional office in Oakland (Calif.) for this because we didn't want any delays," Reinhardt said. "But we will go through a fund recovery and we are hoping the insurance company will pick that up."

However, he said there is yet no cost estimate available.

The vehicle's owners were also present Wednesday but declined through the National Park Service to talk to the press.

"I think they are still in shock a little bit from the whole incident," Reinhardt said, adding, "They are trying to move forward from here out."

The agency had initially said the driver apparently didn't set the emergency brake on the car, but Reinhardt said Wednesday that the investigation hasn't been completed.

However, it appears the car rolled backward in an arc across the scenic overlook's parking area for almost 100 feet before speeding through a narrow opening between a rock wall and a clump of trees and into the caldera, he said.

"For whatever reason, the vehicle rolled in," he said. "We don't have the final investigation closed up yet."

Although park employees will continue to warn visitors about the dangers at the rim, there are no plans to increase the number of stone walls or other barriers, McCabe said.

"It is a very difficult place to put up fences or guardrails," she said. "We have a crew that spends much of the summer repairing the rock walls that get damaged every winter because of the snow.

"National parks also try to give people a natural experience as much as possible," she added. "Certainly, we are very concerned with safety. But this was kind of a freak accident."

Crews on two park research boats, the Neuston and Ouzel, were on the lake surface to help gather debris that rolled the entire 1,100 feet to the lake. Two divers dove into the pool Tuesday to prepare the car and other material to be picked up by the helicopter on Wednesday.

The average water temperature in the lake is 38 degrees, although the water near the surface is warmer this time of year, McCabe said.

A technical rescue crew likely will be used to retrieve the personal items left by the car on the upper end of the cliff face before the snow flies, officials said.

Meanwhile, Reinhardt has words of advice for park visitors: "Remember when you get out of your vehicle to make sure you are in park and the emergency brake is on."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

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