“Spoke on the Water” (Jennifer Groesbeck case)


Jennifer Groesbeck died last week when her car crashed into Utah’s Spanish Fork River. This tragedy would normally have been a regional story, but it became a major news event because her 18-month old daughter Lily survived half a day hanging upside down, her car seat positioned above the water.

But it was a specific element to the rescue that garnered much of the attention. The four hero police officers who rescued the baby later reported they heard an adult voice coming from the car. Officer Jared Warner said he had no explanation for the voice. But hundreds of posters on CNN, Fox News, and other sites filled the void. It was an angel or the mother’s ghost, they emphatically declared, often in all caps and with exclamation points to the power of 10. Praises were lifted to God for sparing the baby, with no accompanying curses for him leaving the young girl motherless.

There’s no reason to believe the officers invented the tale. It could have been the child, but this is unlikely since she would have had to go from speaking to unconscious in the relatively short time it took for the sounds to be heard and the rescue made. Another possibility is the officers were experiencing apophenia, where one detects patterns or phenomenon in sights and sounds. This happens when you wrongly think your cell phone is vibrating or that there’s a knock at the front door when you’re in the basement. Expectation can make a person especially vulnerable to this.

Discovery.com related a story from 2012, where customs officials searched a cargo ship for suspected stowaways. The officials heard knocking and shouts of distress from the ship’s containers. But when opened, no one was inside. The officials’ anticipation had led them to misinterpret other sounds as panicked pleas. This could have been what the Utah police officers experienced. Boats, anglers, bicyclists, hikers, frogs, birds, echoes, trucks, or a flowing river could have made sounds that were interpreted by adrenaline-pumped rescuers as a plea from the netherworld.

There’s no recording of the event, so there’s no bolstering either position, whether asserting the miraculous or the mundane. The accident report has yet to be made available, but it will contain a crucial point, either by documentation or omission. If the four officers independently reported a voice coming from the car, this would be strong evidence they heard something. Not necessarily a deceased woman yelling, but something. But if the memory of the cry for help only surfaced when they were discussing it afterward, with one mentioning it, then another saying maybe he did too, and the others coming to that conclusion, this would be strong evidence of distorted memories and groupthink.

Sharon Hill, editor of Doubtful News, said these ghostly tales are a societal phenomenon. “The apparent sighting or sign suggesting the intervention of a guardian angel are very common cultural stories,” she said. “These types of colorful flourishes are a result of the person relating the story interpreting it in a comforting way. We interpret the event in the framework of our beliefs.”

Unlike the great majority of excited posters who declare there is no possibility beyond their interpretation, I do not assert absolutely that this was apophenia or groupthink. But I do insist that no miracle is required to survive a car crash that is reported by a fisherman, responded to by police officers, and mitigated by a functioning car seat.

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