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Three surviving kids in critical condition after crash into pond

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Marion Guerrido
In this Nov. 21, 2013 photo police lead Marion Guerrido, left, to an ambulance after the car she was driving with five children veered off a suburban Minneapolis highway ramp and became submerged in a storm water pond.
Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune/AP

Two of the children who were trapped underwater when a car veered off the road into a St. Louis Park holding pond are showing signs of improvement.

The children -- Amani Coleman-Guerrido, age 5 and Aliyana Rennie, age 1 -- have become "responsive," family spokesman Rick Petry said during an impromptu press conference Friday afternoon at the St. Louis Park police department.

Emergency crews pulled five children from the submerged 1998 Pontiac Grand Am on Thursday following the crash at highways 100 and 7. Two died: Zenavia Rennie, 5, and Alarious Coleman-Guerrido, 7. 

The three still hospitalized -- Aliyana, Amani and Zarihana Rennie, age 6 -- remain in critical condition.

The driver, Marion Guerrido of Brooklyn Center, was able to escape the car.

St. Louis Park Officer Aaron Trant, the first officer on the scene, said his "heart hit the floor" when he learned there were children trapped in the car underwater.

Trant, who was soon joined at the scene by Sgt. Bryan Kruelle, saw two people standing in the pond with water up to their waists. But he didn't see a car.

Divers
Police investigated the scene where six people were rescued after their car went into a holding pond near a highway exit ramp Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013 in St. Louis Park, Minn.
Elizabeth Flores/Star-Tribune/AP

"Not seeing the vehicle, I screamed out to them," Trant recalled. "I said, 'where's the vehicle at?' They said, 'we're standing on top of the vehicle.'"

One of the three people on top of the car was Guerrido, 23. Trant said he and Kruelle were shocked to hear children were still trapped inside.

A father, he became emotional talking about the rescue.

"To hear that... and both being fathers, it was difficult," Trant said. "But it's part of our job ..."

Rescuers described the challenges of trying to get the children out of the car. Firefighter Tim Smith donned an inflatable suit. But that suit prevented him from using his hands to search for the kids.

"Feeling around with my feet was difficult because of the buoyancy of the suit," Smith said. "And just trying to stabilize me -- if you can imagine a fishing bobber in the waves -- it's difficult to stay in one place."

Smith said he pulled the children out with this feet so he could reach down and grab them with his hands. As he cradled the children in his arms, other rescuers pulled him across the water to shore, where the young victims were taken to ambulances and given CPR.

They thought they had all the children out but had to rush back into the water after learning a fifth child remained in the car. Smith said they smashed the car's back window to reach inside and pull out the last child.

NO VALID DRIVER'S LICENSE

 Guerrido did not have a valid driver's license, the Minnesota State Patrol said. The State Patrol said Guerrido had an instruction permit that allowed her to drive with a licensed driver in the car, but she was the only adult in the car at the time of the crash.

Aliyana, Alarious and Amani are Guerrido's sons and daughter, the State Patrol said.

Rick Petry said Guerrido had dropped off her boyfriend, Julius Rennie, at work. She was on her way to take the kids to her mother's house in Brooklyn Center before heading to work herself when the car went into the pond. All five children were in the submerged car for at least 20 minutes. St. Louis Park fire officials said none of the children was responsive when they were brought to shore.

Four of the victims were students at Odyssey Academy. 

Throughout the school day Friday, students decorated the lockers of Zenavia and Alarious with messages and drawings.

One message read, "See you in Heaven, Alarious. We all love you and miss you." 

School staff huddled last night to come up with a strategy to cope with losses, said John Sedey, the school's executive director. 

"We tried to maintain as much of a normal day as possible -- impossible, but we tried," Sedey said. 

Four grief counselors were on hand to talk with students and staff. They plan to bring them back next week. 

The school has also sent a letter home with students explaining the accident. 

A fund has been set up to help the family pay for funeral expenses and medical costs.

Location of the crash (story continues below):

A TROUBLESOME INTERSECTION

Authorities say Marion Guerrido was going westbound on Highway 7 and turned onto the entrance ramp for northbound Highway 100 just before the crash. It's a fairly sharp turn, almost a right angle, away from Highway 7. Guerrido's car went into the pond very near that turn, and it was only about 50 yards down a slope into the water from the roadway.

State Patrol spokesman Lt. Eric Roeske said it is too early to conclude whether speed or any mechanical problems with the car were factors in the crash. The State Patrol doesn't believe alcohol was a factor. He said the road was damp at the time of the crash. 

A Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman said the intersection was already scheduled for a $60 million overhaul beginning late next summer, with the aim of replacing the sharp corner with a loop because the existing merge length is too short.

The ramp also does not have a guard rail because it doesn't meet MnDOT qualifications for such a structure, which include the slope and a 6-foot distance between the road and the first structure a driver would hit, said Bobbie Dahlke, a MnDOT spokesperson for Hennepin County.

"That six feet is enough room for a motorist to correct the faction, to get out of a situation before it hits a structure or goes into a pond," Dahlke said. Officials have re-evaluated the area since the incident but said it's unlikely they will add a guard rail. "Certainly when anything like this happens, we do re-look at things to make sure," she said.

Between 2010 and 2012, 18 crashes occurred on the ramp, according to MnDOT. Dahlke said that's a relatively low number for an area with traffic signals.

MPR News reporters Jon Collins, Tim Nelson and Elizabeth Dunbar, and MPR News intern Cody Nelson contributed to this report.