On a Friday evening, 34 years ago today, Leslie Ann Pluhar’s car jumped the protective railing of the Mackinac Bridge and plunged 190 feet down into the wavy waters of Straits of Mackinac. It was a puzzling accident to authorities and witnesses at the time, and it has haunted Michigan residents ever since.
“I never believed it was possible,” Jim Ecker, assistant engineer on the bridge, said to a reporter at the time.
It was the first time a vehicle had ever gone over the side of the Mighty Mac.
Witnesses at the time told police the northbound Yugo hit a raised center grate, lurched across the two northbound lanes and hit a lower pipe railing and flipped over the higher railing. Winds at the time of the accident were blowing northwest at 35 mph. Authorities were adamant that the windy conditions did not cause the crash, calling it a “freak accident.”
Bridge Authority manager Walter North said at the time, “It didn’t blow off the bridge.”
Jim Jaskiewicz of Utica witnessed the accident that day. He told the Detroit News at the time the car “was like a piece of paper being swept away in the wind.”
For over a week, the search was hampered by high winds and waves up to 9 feet. The Michigan State Police assembled their team of divers, and experts equipped with sonar devices to help locate the car. Two U.S. Coast Guard vessels searched the area immediately after the accident that Friday evening but found nothing.
Since they were unable to retrieve the car right away, the driver wasn’t immediately identified. But when Pluhar never arrived at her boyfriend’s house in the Upper Peninsula that Friday evening, authorities and Pluhar’s family presumed it was her.
On Sept. 27, the search team located the car using sonar. The car was found 150 feet east of bridge, in line with the area where police figured it dropped into the water and sank. The car was resting on the bottom at a depth of 150 feet near the edge of a steep 300-foot underwater ridge.
One week and one day after the tragic accident, Pluhar and the Yugo were pulled from the water. Authorities at the time said the subcompact vehicle was smashed almost beyond recognition, sustaining intense “accordion damage” from hitting a steal beam on the bridge head on before plunging over the side.
Mackinac Bridge Authority officials continued to discount the theory that wind was responsible for the accident. The conclusion of the investigation determined her speed was a factor in the incident. Pluhar had been driving about 60 mph.
Today, during high wind events, the bridge authority issues high speed warnings, and at times closes the bridge to drivers or guides them across in a caravan.