NEW ORLEANS - The multi-agency search for a missing University of New Orleans student ended Wednesday night.
After four days, 19-year-old Hayley Howard’s vehicle was found submerged in water near Irish Bayou and Interstate 10, with what is believed to be her body inside.
Family and friends cried and embraced when they learned the Northshore teen would not be found alive. Authorities are investigating her death as an accident.
“It isn't the way we wanted this scenario to turn out, but at least the family has some closure,” said St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain, who assisted New Orleans police with the search.
Authorities combed the area on foot, by helicopter and by boat. Police set up a mobile command center Wednesday across from a truck stop in the search area.
More than 100 people, some of them complete strangers, gathered to help.
“I want to thank all those people. God bless them,” said Howard’s father, Jim, in the hours before his daughter’s body was found.
Ultimately, the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office found Howard's silver Toyota Corolla using sonar, and a New Orleans police dive team helped recover it.
“She's touched a lot of hearts and she's going to continue to keep touching them,” said lifelong family friend Austin Naulty, who had been helping in the search since Sunday.
Police say at some point Howard was driving on I-10 East and veered off the road, driving on the grass between the guard rail and the tree line, without hitting either, and without hitting an exit sign near the waterway, before she hit the water.
“The accident investigation scene is a very typical scene that you would see in this type of collision with the water way,” said New Orleans Police Chief Ronal Serpas. “We have nothing yet to make us believe differently, but we're not going to stop investigating.”
“It's just odd how she can go through that one little spot and not have anything happen to the car,” said Naulty.
Howard was last seen early Saturday morning. Police say a group of Good Samaritans helped the Northshore teen fix a flat tire near UNO before she started driving to Slidell. A cell phone tower ping led police to search Irish Bayou.
“There will always be questions and you just never know when the answers are going to come,” said Naulty.
Police are searching for answers too. There is still a lot of work do, including an autopsy and vehicle inspection, said Serpas.
The Orleans Parish Coroner's Office will perform an autopsy to confirm the identity of the body.