Dark Waters

UPDATED 09/16/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/16/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT

THE SITE OF ONE OF THE MOST ghastly crimes in recent memory, it has become the most macabre of tourist attractions. For two years now, curiosity seekers have been drawn to John D. Long Lake, just outside Union, S.C., where in October 1994, Susan Smith sent her young sons Michael, 3, and Alex, 14 months, strapped in her Mazda, rolling down a boat ramp—drowning the boys. On Aug. 31, the attraction proved fatal.

That evening, after an impromptu cookout, four adults and six children piled into a car and set out to visit the scene. Within minutes of their arrival, the driver and six passengers—including four young children—drowned in a bizarre and so far confounding incident.

Tim Phillips, 26, an air-conditioning installer from rural Union, drove the '87 GMC Suburban that night. Joining him were wife Angie, 22, a student; their three daughters, aged 4 months to 4 years; friend Sidney White, 29, a truck driver; his fiancée, Sonya Phillips (no relation to Tim), 29; her two daughters; and 3-year-old Cody Roodvoets, whom Sonya was babysitting. Around 9 p.m., Tim Phillips pulled to a stop between two stone memorials to Smith's sons, atop a steep slope 25 yards from the lake. Angie Phillips, White, Sonya Phillips and her daughters had just stepped out to read the stones' inscriptions when the vehicle began rolling between the markers, then over a small holly tree planted in memory of Michael and Alex, and into the inky lake.

"It happened so fast," says Sonya Phillips. "It came like a flash of light, and it was gone. It went straight down." White and Angie leapt into the water, hoping to drag out survivors. "I heard someone holler, 'Help!' I heard the babies crying," says Sonya, who ran a quarter-mile with daughter Danielle, 11, to a highway, where a motorist with a cell phone called 911.

At first, Sheriff Howard Wells thought the call was a sick joke, but sped to the scene. He was too late. Sidney White had apparently freed at least one of the children but drowned before reaching the shore. Also dead were the entire Phillips family—Angie too having drowned in the rescue attempt—and 3-year-old Cody.

How Tim Phillips lost control of the car remains a mystery. "I've asked myself that over and over," says Sonya Phillips. There were no braking marks or signs that Tim Phillips had tried to steer the Suburban away from the dropoff. The car ended up on its roof in 20 feet of water. When a tow truck pulled it out some 8 hours later, police found the automatic transmission in park, the emergency brake disengaged and the ignition switched on. "We're looking at it as an accident," says Sheriff Wells. "Hopefully it was such."

Blood tests ruled out alcohol or drugs as factors. And those close to him say there is no reason to think Tim Phillips, a doting father, might intentionally have driven into the lake. "You never saw him anywhere without at least one of the kids," says a cousin, Teresa Mims. In the end, of course, it was the loss of the children that seemed most unbearable. Libby Roodvoets, 38, and her husband, Mark, 46, an executive, had tried for years before Cody's birth to have a child. "His whole life," she says, "was ahead."

THOMAS FIELDS-MEYER
DON SIDER in Union

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