Ultimately, a passer-by helped all four escape from the cold Delaware River in Florence Township, N.J., after one sibling kicked out a window.
"They did all the right things," said the father, Jeffrey Smith. "I just thank God that they got out safely."
Police said Joann Smith, of Florence, tried to drown the three children, ages 13 to 15. She was charged with attempted murder and child endangerment and was being held on $600,000 bail.
Jeffrey Smith said he received a call from his daughter around 6:30 p.m. Tuesday after the car went off a boat ramp about 20 miles northeast of Philadelphia. He said his two sons in the van were simultaneously trying to call 911, but one was cut off when the phone got wet.
Smith said he was about 15 miles away running an errand with the couple's eldest son when he got the call.
About the same time, township resident Darnell Taylor said he and his wife were driving by the boat ramp when he noticed the partially submerged van in the river. He told WCAU-TV that he got out of his car, heard screaming and jumped in the water.
"I couldn't get the window open because the window in the van was not a pop-out window," Taylor told the Philadelphia NBC affiliate. "So I kept telling the young lady to kick the window out and she kicked it out."
Taylor recalled that Joann Smith only said "Thank you" during the ordeal.
Jeffrey Smith said Thursday that his 49-year-old wife has been battling mental illness for more than a decade. Treatments have included hospitalizations and medications, he said, yet it's hard to determine "when things are going to go bad."
He said he never anticipated a situation like this.
Smith expressed gratitude for Taylor's help in saving the family and noted he's received a lot of support from church and neighborhood groups.
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