MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. - The holidays were a time of year Wayne and Dianne Guay looked forward to when they, like millions of Americans, hit the highway for a trek to visit family and old friends.
As in years past, the couple planned to make the 12-hour journey from their home near this beach town north along the concrete-and-asphalt ribbon of Interstate 95 to their old neighborhood in Queens, N.Y.
But this season, the Guays never arrived.
About dawn on Dec. 7, as their compact Mazda sped along the interstate in North Carolina, the white car filled with brightly wrapped presents swerved from the pavement, plunged down an embankment and, its headlights still glowing, settled in 8 feet of water in a swamp by the roadside.
The wreck would not be found for more than four days.
The Guays planned to enjoy the holidays early, get to see their 5-year-old granddaughter and celebrate the birthday of their 27-year-old daughter, Megan.
Mr. Guay, 57, a former city sanitation worker and his wife Dianne, 55, a former school district employee, retired five years ago and moved south. Parents of three and grandparents of two, they returned to their old neighborhood several times a year.
THE NIGHT BEFORE the crash the couple crammed presents into the trunk of their car, the overflow going in the back seat.
They phoned family, saying they planned a 4 a.m. start the next morning.
The first inkling of tragedy came about 7:30 a.m. Thursday from a 911 caller driving U.S. Highway 64, which crosses I-95 near Rocky Mount, N.C.
"There is a car in the ditch, like in the swamp area. The lights are still on and everything," the caller told a dispatcher, who promised to send help.
A highway patrol car, two ambulances, a rescue truck and two fire trucks were dispatched. The trooper didn't see anything and backtracked several miles along the Interstate to recheck.
A second search still found nothing and the search was suspended after about 25 minutes when there was no apparent sign of a car or skid marks.
IN QUEENS, concern turned to worry as the hours passed and calls to the Guays' cell phones went to voice mail. By evening, it was clear something was amiss.
The family contacted police in New York and South Carolina and checked with law enforcement agencies up and down the interstate to see whether there were any accidents.
Missing persons bulletins were issued and family members spent last weekend combing roads the couple might have taken to reach the interstate.
A chopper the family hired was in the air Monday afternoon when the top of the Mazda was sighted beneath the water along the interstate. A short while earlier, a road worker saw a piece of luggage floating.
"They're in heaven now," said Megan Guay. "They were perfect people. We always said we loved each other, we gave each other hugs, and I'm thankful that God gave them to me for 27 years."
On Wednesday, family members visited the crash scene, embracing, crying and gazing over the water.
The couple's son, Thomas Guay put a foot-tall evergreen at the top of the slope and placed a wreath with an angel near the highway.
"It was for my mother. She loved Christmas. The angels were for her," he said.
IN THE AFTERMATH, questions remain.
Police are not sure what caused the accident and will stage a recreation, said Julia Jarema, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Crime Control and Public Safety. Nash County, N.C., officials plan a review of the search.
"I find it hard to believe how, when they sent someone to search here, they couldn't see the skid marks or the car in the water," said Daniel Rodriguez, the couple's son-in-law.
Family members criticized police in the Myrtle Beach area for not doing enough.
"If anybody ever has missing adults, you really have to rely on yourself - to get up there in a helicopter and search," Megan Guay said.
Horry County Deputy Chief David Beaty said there are as many as 1,000 missing persons reports in the area each year. They did as much as they could, he said.