The last thing Jerad Miller remembers about his drive home from Columbia Mall on Friday night is turning south from Broadway onto U.S. 63 about 8 p.m.
The next morning, Miller regained consciousness wedged between the broken windshield of his blue Chevrolet Corsica and the freezing water of Hominy Branch Creek. His friend and passenger, 23-year-old Joseph Stenger, lay dead by his side.
“I tried to wake him up for 30 minutes,” Miller said. “I was screaming and yelling.”
But nobody heard him. Both were far below the road in a creek bed. Miller, 21, who suffered head injuries and frostbite, said he had to crawl up the embankment — about 60 feet of a steep, rocky incline — to flag down help.
Miller said police found him the next morning after receiving a call from a motorist whom he managed to flag down. Miller was taken to University Hospital, where he was listed in fair condition Monday night.
Why it took authorities almost 12 hours, and considerable effort on the part of a victim, to find Miller and Stenger remains unclear.
Columbia Police Capt. Zim Schwartze said her department responded to a 911 call regarding a vehicle off the road on U.S. 63 around 8 p.m. Friday.
“We received a call about a car, but we don’t know if it was the same car,” Schwartze said. “The information we received was a little off from where the (Saturday) accident occurred.”
Schwartze said five or six officers responded and thoroughly searched the area where they were dispatched with headlights and flashlights.
Meanwhile, Miller and Stenger suffered through 12 hours without medical treatment in temperatures that dipped to 17 degrees.
“We laid out there for so long,” Miller said. “If we had not had to lie out there so long my friend might have lived.”
When police found Miller the next morning, Miller said he was told by officers at the scene that the previous night’s caller placed the accident at Stadium Boulevard and U.S. 63 instead of Broadway and U.S. 63.
Miller said that he was told by police that the Stadium and U.S. 63 area was thoroughly searched but that he and his friend were not found because the scene of the accident was so far from the search area.
Police received a tip Monday afternoon that the accident might have happened Friday night instead of Saturday morning, and are investigating, Police Chief Randy Boehm said. The investigation will be conducted by reviewing radio records, 911 records and testimony from officers at the scene, among other things, Boehm said.
The Columbia Fire Department did not respond Friday because the call was simply information from somebody saying a car had gone off the road, Schwartze said. Schwartze said the police department receives many calls in which cars may pull off and pull back on and in which there was no accident.
On Monday night, Miller lay in a bed at University Hospital chatting with his fiance and commenting on the food. With the perspective of a few days behind him, Miller thought about how he managed to crawl out of his overturned car and up to the roadway while injured, frostbitten and having just found his friend dead.
“Pure adrenaline,” he said.
He says he’s glad he survived the ordeal, but still questions how he could have been left out there so long.
“It’s kind of ridiculous how the police handled the whole thing,” Miller said. “If there is an accident, it’s not too much to ask to look one exit down. That’s their job.”