Missing person Evelyn Stremmel of York, Pa., barreled down the C&O Canal towpath on Thursday night around 9 p.m. in her Oldsmobile Cutlass Sierra. Only Park Service vehicles are permitted on the towpath, and at least four pedestrians and cyclists had to leap off the path to avoid being hit by the 76-year-old’s car.
“Witnesses told me that she had come across a bridge near the parking lot near Old Angler’s Inn – a pedestrian bridge that we use for emergency vehicles,” said Pete Piringer, spokesperson for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue. “She came across there, made a hard right turn and proceeded north on the canal towpath at a pretty good rate of speed, according to witnesses.”
“She wasn’t slowing down at all,” said Chief Jim Seavey of the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department. “There were people diving off the towpath into the woods or down the bank. We have no explanation for why she went on the towpath to begin with. Vehicles are not authorized on the towpath.”
Boulders and large rocks about a mile north of Old Angler’s Inn serve as a signal for Park Service vehicles not to drive further. Stremmel continued speeding and her car launched into the air, flipped and then sank into the 15-foot water in the C&O Canal.
“We had eyewitness reports that a car with at least one victim inside had gone up into the air after hitting a rock and had gone into the canal on its roof,” said Seavey. “It had come at a high rate of speed down the towpath from Great Falls Park. There’s a rock outcropping that prevents any vehicles from getting by, and she was trying to get past that or was trying to put herself into the canal.”
Rescue workers arrived at the scene within 15 minutes and located the upside-down car, which still had its headlights on. Divers with Cabin John and Fire and Rescue quickly retrieved the woman. Stremmel was pronounced dead on the scene, and her body was turned over to the United States Park Police and the Montgomery County coroner.
Rumors swirled in the aftermath of the incident.
“One of the eyewitnesses reported that she got out [of the vehicle] and slammed the trunk door, and they heard someone banging on it when she got back in,” said Seavey.
Divers checked the trunk under water, and there was no one inside.
Was this suicide?
“It was hard to determine that,” said Piringer. “The vehicle was upside-down and she was entrapped in her vehicle. It’s very likely she couldn’t have gotten out, but it’s also very possible she didn’t want to get out.”
Seavey said that the woman was not wearing her seatbelt when her body was recovered.
What about the car?
“When we left last night it was in the canal,” said Seavey. “That will be up to the Park Service to salvage that.”