Dad Likely Popped Hatch as Car Sank into Mich. Lake, Saving His 2 Young Girls Before He Died: Cops

Police believe a Michigan dad who died after driving into a lake was able to pop the back hatch of the vehicle open as it sank, which allowed his two young daughters to escape.

The father, identified as 52-year-old Jon Paul Dowler of Otsego, died after driving into Lake Macatawa over the weekend, according to a release obtained by PEOPLE from the Ottawa County Sheriff's Office. His two daughters, 8 and 10, escaped the vehicle before reaching the shore, where they were able to find shelter before getting help later on Sunday.

Police say the girls were able to get out through the back hatch of the vehicle, according to The Holland Sentinel.

"They stated the back hatch opened and they were able to crawl out of that and then they swam to shore," Ottawa County Sheriff's Office Lt. Eric Westveer told the newspaper.

Westveer said that there is no handle on the inside of the hatch and that they believe the father likely was able to get it to open from the front of the car, reported MLive. Police also said that it appeared he was attempting to break his window open.

Jon Paul Dowler, daughters, Lake Macatawa Michigan
Jon Paul Dowler, daughters, Lake Macatawa Michigan

GoFundMe Jon Paul Dowler and daughters

"At this point we are still looking into the hatch opening, however all indications point to the father opening it," Westveer tells PEOPLE on Wednesday.

According to a release obtained by PEOPLE, the girls were "treated for cold exposure" at a local hospital, but have since been released.

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Although an investigation into the crash is ongoing, authorities believe it was accidental.

"At this point, we believe that the father became disoriented, not familiar with the area, which ended up (with) him ending up in the water just because of the way that road is constructed there," Westveer said, according to The Holland Sentinel.

Lake Macatawa, Michigan
Lake Macatawa, Michigan

Getty Images Lake Macatawa

"At the end of the road where the pavement ends, there's about a 20-foot stretch before the water that's kind of sand and gravel," he added. "We did not locate any tire marks in that area, so that tells us that at that point, he was airborne before going into the water."

The newspaper reported that Westveer said the stretch of road is dark, but that it's properly marked.

"It appears to be a pure accident," police said, according to MLive.

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The girls told authorities that at the time of the crash they were headed home after visiting a family friend, per the Sentinel.

"They (said) they kind of fell asleep and they (woke up) to the sound of the crash and then hitting the water," Westveer told the newspaper.

Lorelei Denton, a friend of Dowler's wife, told MLive/The Grand Rapids Press that she didn't believe their father would harm them.

"They are very good people," she told the outlet of the family. "Jon loved his girls and he would never do anything to hurt them."

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After making it to the shore, the girls tried to find help nearby, but weren't immediately successful.

"They did try and knock on some doors but there were no answers because those were summer cottages and there's nobody in residence at the time," police said, according to ABC affiliate WZZM.

Eventually, they were able to find an enclosed porch to spend the night, reported the Sentinel.

"One of the comments they made to the officer that actually talked to them … they told him that on a TV show, they learned that if you huddle together, you can use each other's body heat to stay warm," Westveer said, per WZZM. "They were soaking wet and it was 30 degrees out."

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Later that morning, they were finally able to find help.

"I came out and there's this little girl standing about where I am now, with one shoe on and barefoot," homeowner Kevin Macleod told FOX station WXMI over the weekend.

Police said the homeowner was the one to call, per the Sentinel.

"Him getting them out of the elements at that time and started warming up definitely saved their lives," Westveer told the newspaper.

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A GoFundMe has been created to help cover the family's expenses.

"My goal is to help her raise funds to support the immediate financial burdens, so she can focus her time and energy getting herself and the girls through the roughest time of their lives," Jenny's friend, Lorelei Denton, wrote in a message on the fundraising page.

"Just hoping and praying we can all come together and help make such a tragic time, not so hard for this wonderful loving family to overcome," Denton added.

As of Wednesday, the GoFundMe has raised over $6,000.