fter finishing up at her Uptown job on Friday evening, Hayley Howard, dressed in a black-and-white polka dot dress and a pair of kitten heels, stopped for a couple of drinks with some friends on Magazine Street before heading home.
Afterward, the 19-year-old student at the University of New Orleans dropped a friend off at the University of Orleans dorms before beginning the drive back to her home in Slidell.
But she never made it home, prompting a frantic, four-day search that criss-crossed the city and ultimately ended in tragedy Wednesday afternoon when police found what they believe to be Howard's body submerged in her car after pulling it from the Irish Bayou on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain.
New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas and St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain addressed members of the media gathered on the Interstate 10 median near where Howard's 2002 Silver Toyota Corolla was pulled out of the water.
Serpas said authorities believed that Howard died as a result of a "tragic, fatal accident," when she apparently veered off of the highway and into the waterway one mile from the Irish Bayou exit near Interstate 10.
"It's not at all the way we would have wanted it to turn out," Strain told the media. "But it is the way it is. At least the family has some closure now."
Upon hearing the news, friends and family members standing nearby burst into tears. Many gathered around Howard's boyfriend, hugged him and offered condolences while the young man quietly wept.
Howard's relatives, including her mother, were on the scene, praying and embracing supporters.
The discovery Wednesday marked a sad end to a multi-agency search, which spanned four days and involved the help of many friends, family members and strangers who offered to lend a helping hand during the busy Mardi Gras period.
Posters with Howard's picture plastered the walls of coffee shops, telephone poles and street signs across the New Orleans area and Howard's father pleaded with the public to help find his daughter, during a weekend of revelry for most New Orleans-area residents and visitors.
The hashtag #findhaley quickly spread across social media and a community Facebook page entitled "HelpFindHayleyHoward" garnered more than 120,000 followers.
By Wednesday morning, community members and authorities began combing through an area of eastern New Orleans in hopes of finding clues that might shed some light on the Slidell teen's disappearance. About 100 friends and family members braved the drizzle, mud and brisk temperatures to help search, starting from the cellphone tower where authorities had last tracked her cellphone early Saturday.
Pings from Howard's phone suggest that it registered at Irish Bayou early on Saturday morning, near the I-10 twin spans that cross Lake Pontchartrain.
Hayley's father, James Howard, said the pings from his daughter's phone suggest that it traveled east from UNO toward Slidell. A call was made from her phone about 2:24 a.m. and shows that that the phone was traveling at the time the call was made. After that another ping showed the phone to be registered in the Michoud area of eastern New Orleans before showing up at Irish Bayou.
As of 6:06 a.m. Saturday, the woman's phone was dead, Howard said.
At some point during the overnight hours on Saturday, Howard spoke with her boyfriend, who later told her relatives that she told him her vehicle had a tire blowout and that she was being assisted by some good Samaritans, who had pulled over to help her.
Other friends had told police that Howard was on her way to a party to meet up with friends in Slidell.
Armed with that scant information, Howard's family and friends searched in vain for her from Saturday until Wednesday afternoon.
"We're just hoping to find something, anything," James Howard said before his daughter's vehicle was found in the waterway.
While volunteers and authorities searched by foot, local law enforcement deployed a helicopter, dive teams and search boats, which eventually zeroed in on an area off of a small bridge over the waterway about one mile from the Irish Bayou exit on I-10.
"It's always devastating when such a young life is lost," Serpas said in a prepared statement. "I have three children myself, and I can't imagine what Ms. Howard's parents are going through. I assured them that this department is here to assist them in any way they may need."
Police initially said witnesses told them that Howard may have been intoxicated when last seen by friends early Saturday. But Serpas said the cause of the accident is still under investigation and it is not known whether impairment played a factor in the crash.
The Orleans Parish coroner will conduct a toxicology analysis as part of the investigation, he said.