Three women returning from a birthday party drowned when the driver lost control of a Jeep Cherokee (search) and went off the road, plunging into a river as the women frantically called a friend on a cell phone instead of dialing 911.

Trapped inside the sinking SUV, the women were unable to tell their friend where they were and although their friend scrambled to use another phone to call police, authorities didn't immediately know where the vehicle had ended up.

"They had us on the line while they were talking to the individual in the car," Newark police Detective Todd McClendon said. "They were unclear on where they were."

Within minutes of the accident, witnesses called 911 but police conceded that they might not have been able to save the trio even if they knew the exact location of the SUV.

"Due to the depth of the water and the rapid descent into the river, a successful rescue would have required a dive team in the water at the location and time of the incident," Newark Police Director Anthony F. Ambrose said in a statement.

Rafael Miranda said he saw the Jeep go off the road and into the water. He grabbed a flashlight and ran to the vehicle, banging on its roof and windows as he attempted to free the victims.

"I tried and I tried and I tried, but I couldn't do it," Miranda said. "They were conscious. They were screaming, screaming 'Help me, help me!'"

Investigators are trying to determine what caused the driver to lose control around 4:30 a.m. Sunday, police said. The SUV landed in 35 feet of water in the Passaic River (search).

The women had attended a birthday party in Jersey City on Saturday night. "We all had the best time at the party. Everybody was happy, eating, dancing and then this," said Hazel Booker, a friend.

The dead were identified as Nicole Floyd, 34, who worked at a drug rehabilitation center; Gail Williams, 35, a homeless shelter counselor; and Monique Hawkins, 39, a nurse's aid — all of Newark.