[UPDATE] Witness Tells of Vehicle Tipping Onto Two Wheels and Tumbling Over the Bank Into the Eel River Near Confusion Hill North of Leggett; Searchers Scour the River Tuesday

Sandeep Thottapilly family

A recent photo of 38-year-old Soumya, 9-year-old Saachi, 12-year-old Siddhant, and 42-year-old Sandeep Thottapilly. The family has been missing since the day a vehicle was seen rolling into the Eel River north of Leggett. Parts from a vehicle similar to theirs were found at the accident site. [Photo used with permission of relatives]

Pat Berkowitz caught just a glimpse before the vehicle that had been pulling over in front of the car he was riding in tipped sideways, thrust two wheels into the air, and tumbled over the bank and out of sight on Friday, April 5 north of Leggett. Frantically, he called 911 as his wife pulled their car into the next pullout.

In terror, he said, he ran back up the road and followed the vehicle over the bank to where he could see the Eel River. There was nothing, the 67-year-old said, but oil spreading over the surface of the water.

By 1:10 p.m. last Friday, dispatchers were sending emergency vehicles scrambling to the scene in response to Berkowitz’s call. Meanwhile, Berkowitz, who had been traveling from Oregon with his wife, Lorraine, was standing stunned in the rain.

“We were en route to go down to San Francisco,” he told us over the phone last night. “We live in Brookings, Oregon.”

Berkowitz, a high school teacher, explained that this part of their trip had “bad driving conditions.” He said, “My wife was driving…I was on the cellphone texting.” He said he wasn’t really watching the road. “I was not completely aware of what is around us,” he said.

“We were going around a curve and the vehicle a bit in front of us was pulling off the road,” Berkowitz said. “My wife goes…’Oh! oh!'” He then began to look up and pay attention. “The car wasn’t going fast,” he explained. “I don’t think he hit his brakes…The car was not stopping…It goes up on two wheels and tumbled over the edge.” He paused, took a breath, and continued, “I remember seeing the underside of the car.”

In horror, the couple continued past the pullout to one nearby that was larger. “We couldn’t stop there,” he said, “’cause it wasn’t safe.” As they drove past, Berkowitz dialed 911 and described the situation.

When they came to a stop, he said he headed back up the road to the accident scene. The vehicle had rolled down the bank and he followed it. “I’m not young,” he explained, “and my wife wasn’t happy that I’m putting myself in an unsafe position.”

The section of the South Fork of the Eel River where the vehicle was believed to enter the water.

The section of the South Fork of the Eel River where the vehicle was believed to enter the water. [Photo by Mark McKenna taken on Tuesday]

As he went over the edge and down towards the distant river, he saw a few bits of debris from the vehicle. “I could see where a mirror for the car had tumbled,” he said. But as he neared the river, he couldn’t see the vehicle that had rolled down the bank. “The car was submerged,” he said. But he said he saw oil spreading over the water.

Berkowitz said he shouted in hopes that someone might have been flung out but no one answered. “We stayed there trying to look and trying to help,” he said. But, ultimately it was decided that a rescue or recovery couldn’t be attempted. The swollen river was too dangerous for crews to attempt to search for the vehicle.

Stones placed by local resident Ken Pulling and his children, Devlyn & Ember, show how high the river was Friday compared to when the search occurred on Tuesday.

Stones placed by local resident Ken Pulling and his children, Devlyn & Ember, show how high the river was Friday compared to when a search occurred on Tuesday. [Photo by Mark McKenna]

He said he and his wife have been badly shaken. He tried to take comfort in the words of a California Highway Patrol officer at the scene. “He thanked us because if we hadn’t let them know, no one would have known the vehicle had gone in the water.” Still, he said, it left he and his wife with “such a feeling of helplessness.”

Though thanks to the Berkowitz’s, it was known that a vehicle went off the edge of Hwy 101 and into the swollen Eel River north of Leggett and disappeared before it could be identified, no one knew the occupants or where they had been traveling.

Meanwhile, kinsfolk and friends of the Thottapilly family that had been on a road trip began to worry when they didn’t arrive as expected at a relative’s home. Eventually, family members contacted law enforcement and put out a flyer.

Thottapilly family missing person poster

Locals who had been at the crash site on the Eel River believed that the pieces of the vehicle left on the hillside indicated that it had been a maroon Honda Pilot which matched the missing family’s car. By Monday, social media was buzzing with the news that the missing family might have been in the vehicle under the muddy, engorged Eel River.

California Highway Patrol Officer William Wunderlich confirmed Tuesday morning that “similar parts were located.” But, he noted, “But none of those have confirmed specifically that it is the vehicle registered to the missing family…There was no license plate or vin number.” And he noted, “It is a very popular vehicle model.”

He said that the Highway Patrol was “aware of the missing person’s report.” But, he said, “We don’t have any evidence to match the vehicles though they are similar in type and in color…When we have the right and positive information, we will release that.”

Members of Southern Humboldt Technical Rescue gear up

Members of Southern Humboldt Technical Rescue gear up to continue searching for a vehicle that crashed into the South Fork of the Eel River just south of Dora Creek last Friday. [Photo by Mark McKenna]

By the afternoon on Tuesday, multiple agencies and volunteer groups assembled on the bank of the Eel River to search for the missing vehicle. Approximately, 30 volunteers from Search and Rescue groups across Southern Humboldt and Mendocino Counties brought boats and other gear to the accident scene.

Members of multiple technical rescue teams discuss the plan for the search. [Photo by Mark McKenna]

Earlier rain and clouds had been swept away and warm sun shone down on the crews. The Eel River was still swift and muddy but it had dropped a good deal since last Friday.

Three members of Southern Humboldt Technical Rescue--married couple Aurora and Shawn Studebaker flank Genario Gray---assess the river conditions

Three members of Southern Humboldt Technical Rescue–married couple Aurora and Shawn Studebaker flank Genairo Gray—assess the river conditions and the area they should start the search based on where it was believed the vehicle entered the river. [Photo by Mark McKenna]

Suiting up and planning to be safe took some time.

Search crews head downstream to begin their search.

Search crews head downstream to begin their search. [Photo by Mark McKenna]

Southern Humboldt County Technical Rescue and Hopland Fire Department sent their swift water rescue teams. There were other volunteers

Search crews scour the area where the vehicle entered the water.

Search crews scoured the area where the vehicle entered the water. [Photo by Mark McKenna]

Other agencies and volunteers at the scene included Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office, Cal Fire, Leggett Volunteer Fire, and Piercy Volunteer Fire.

Items from the wreck were gathered and brought back to shore. But no vehicle and no bodies were located.

Many of the people searching had left jobs and families in order to help. They did it with no pay and, for the most part, no thanks from early afternoon until evening.

They did it because a family needed to know if their loved ones had perished.

And, today…they’ll do it again…

Crews continue their search downstream.

Crews continue their search downstream. On Wednesday, they’ll return. [Photo by Mark McKenna]

UPDATE with information on the ongoing search: Motorized Boat and Helicopter Join the Search for Vehicle Submerged in the Eel River

Earlier Chapters for Vehicle Swallowed by the Eel River: 

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestmail

65 comments

  • Very sad story, but excellent reporting.

  • My heart and prayers go out to the family of the lost accident victims,, the witness who saw this tragic accident, all the people giving their time,energy,and dedication to locate and retrieve the accident victims, but most of all the souls and spirits of this family who perished in this tragic accident, may they Rest In Peace.

  • That stretch of road needs a fucking railing. The 101 from Willits to Ukiah has brand new railings. This is more important than widening Richardson Grove. How many citizens have ended up in the Eel just in the last year? Why is this acceptable?

    • I have had two cars off the road and in to my yard since I have lived alongside highway 299 over twenty years. Both times drivers/passengers survived. I asked CalTrans why not add a guardrail there and was told they won’t put one up unless someone dies. Perhaps the Eel will get one there now.

    • Jerry has a bullet train to build. No money earmarked for silly guard rails.

      • How do you know the budget for guard rails?
        Why bring your politics to this horrendous tragedy?
        My heart goes out to all involved….. The family directly involved, their family, and friends, the people who witnessed the car go over the embankment, and took action, our Tech Rescue team (who always put their own lives at risk, when they answer a call), and CHP.

      • Focusing on prevention of tragedies like this should definitely be a priority. But the bullet train issue has no pertinence. It was on the ballot a couple years back, and voters approved it. Personally, I voted against it. My ultimate point is don’t try to connect an accident like this to some other issue you’re unhappy about.

    • This is WAY more important than widening Richardson’s Grove!

      • I agree. Guard rails are a must all up n down California Treacherous roads. So many lives may have been saved. California needs to fix the safety issues.

  • The SoCal missing family is my friend’s cousin. We all are so thankful for the people and officials who are helped/helping in the rescue and recovery efforts.

    Kym Kemp, thank you so much for your detailed reporting.

  • How awful. I think it’s most likely that this is the family involved. I feel terrible for them but probably feel even worse for the witness. What a helpless, gut wrenching feeling that had to have been.

  • This is unbelievably sad with little kids probably perishing as well. Thank you to all the rescue workers!

  • Thanks for the detailed story, Kym. Now we know that it wasn’t somebody tailgating and indeed the people in the car behind them did everything they could to help. Sometimes bad or sad accidents just happen…Thanks for explaining the rescue team and their efforts. Everybody is behaving kind and generous in this disaster. My sympathies go out to the family.

  • The family in question are very close to me. Sandeep (Main Driver) of the Vehicle is like my brother. We grew up to-gather.

    With deepest gratitue, I would like to thank all the organisations, teams and volunteers who are helping relentlessly in trying to find them. I am indebted to you all.

    God Bless you and Good Luck with the Search.

    • And thank you for your Blessing. Peace.

    • I am so sorry for your tragic loss. I hope the family is found soon so you can say goodbye properly. Please take good care of yourself as you grieve.

    • I am so very sorry for your loss. There just aren’t the proper words in times like these. I wish you and the family peace in the difficult days ahead.

    • Sandeep thotapilly is our college buddy n very close to us…and we knew the family well too…. we are all praying that this is not sandeep’s car and that miraculously they are all safe n sound…
      Till then even i would like to extend my gratitude to all the teams and volunteers and organisation involved in the search operation. Thank you from the depth of my heart for relentlessly n selflessly tryin to search them.
      Good luck for the search.

    • My heart goes out to the family and friends of these people. So sad

  • I hope that whoever wrote this article is a regular contributor from here on out. Sad but thrilling story, very well reported. Thank you.

  • If anyone can find it, its the awesome volunteer technical rescue team.
    To any relatives/friends, these volunteers are incredibly committed&well trained, & will not rest until the car is found. Our community so feels for you. Please reach out if theres anything else we can do to help.

    There definitely needs to be guard rails on those turnouts! Its not the same funding as a bullet train, to the person needing to bring in politics. Cal-trans has more than enough money to put in some metal rails. I think its a good idea to tell them to take the money they’d use to widen the grove and use that $ for guard rails. Safety over profit please!!!

    Blessings and love to all involved♡

    • I agree. Guard rails are a must all up n down California Treacherous roads. So many lives…. and I’m he could have been saved. California needs to fix the safety issues.

      When I saw the missing family post my heart just plunged. I’m praying for your family 🙏.

      California step up fix your roads before more die. shelter cove road. Alderpoint road. Ettersburg road. Use the money save lives. Or you’ll loose your tourism People aren’t going to Bring their family or travel where they could have these accidents. So many lives. So sad.

  • Thank you Kym.

  • Pinch of Salt River

    Kudos on your story. Very well written. My heart goes out to ALL involved in this sad situation.

  • Thank you so much for the reporting and pictures. This is probably only source reporting about the latest updates on the search efforts. We can’t thank enough the volunteer search crew. Prayers.

  • Veteran's Friend

    I was in tears reading this story.
    Huge & undying blessings to the searchers.
    Condolences to all affected by this tragedy.

  • One of the many hearts of our wonderful community, those who are willing and able to help whenever there is need. The Southern Humboldt Technical Rescue team. Thank you for your courage and dedication Aurora, Diana, Genairo, Shawn and all the others. Love and condolences to the family and all involved. Thank you for an excellent report, Kym.

  • Thank you all the volunteers and first responders putting their time and effort to bring the closer to the loved ones.

  • Kym, this is excellent, detailed and respectable reporting from you. Keep doing what you are doing!! God bless and prayers for the missing family. Kudos to all involved in the search and rescue/recovery efforts.

  • As a parent whose children went to school with Saachi and Sid, I’ve been following this story with horror and deep sadness. Such a great family, such kind and friendly people. Thank you, Kym, for this solid reporting. We in Valencia appreciate what you are doing.

  • Thank you for excellent reporting, Kym. Thank you so much to the many volunteers and various agencies for your continuing efforts in this search and for all you do. And condolences to those family & friends of the victims, whomever they may be. Such a tragedy.

  • These must be Indians. Too bad. From my experience and observation, in general they are hard working, intelligent, value education and family values. Quite unlike some other ethnic groups, they don`t whine about their minority status, beg for or expect special dispensations from the government. If they ever play “boom boom” music in their houses or cars, I`ve never heard of it nor have I heard of groups of Indians hanging out on street corners looking to mug people. There are quite a few others who could use Indians as role models. Too bad we lost this family.

    • Wow! You certainly went right to the edge to make your point.

    • Good observation! I share your thoughts and experience.
      Hats off to Pat and the search team for their efforts!
      Prayers for the family!

    • Re:Jonathan Dowe: What a douchey thing to say. You really sound like an undereducated hick who needs to get out more. Maybe start with a passport, which I’m sure you don’t have. Get some stamps

    • J. Dowe, you choose to live in your own little microcosm that feeds your narrow-minded and lack-of-common-sense “observation.”

      Most unfortunate that you did not have better role models.

      Here, amidst heartbreak and sorrow, you sprout your racist, bigoted, willfully-ignorant and hateful drivel, stereotyping an entire ethinic group. You and your ilk are all that is wrong with the planet.

      Shouldn’t you be on Breitbart or Stormfront?

      Better yet,
      [edit]

  • Feel so sorry for the loss of lives in a tragic incident. Family went out on a trip for fun and to meet their friends/relatives but it’s so unfortunate their lives lost this way far away from their homes. May god give enough strength for the family to bear this loss.

  • In light of this tragedy, I’d like to make a positive comment.
    Our very specialized Technical Rescue team members donate their valuable time in extensive training, fundraising and then, by serving the public good in cases like this. Carefully view those wonderful photos in this article. All of that safety gear is hugely expensive and absolutely necessary.
    Please find it in your hearts and wallets to give a monetary donation to our incredible rescuers or to your local volunteer fire company.
    Better yet, and more valuable than money is your time. Sign up to volunteer. All of our communities need more volunteers.

  • I so hope the couple who witnessed this can find some group or personal therapy to talk aboit it and process it. I’m sure the impact of this will continue to haunt them, and it can help to talk to someone who has been through a similar experience.

    Without you and your wife Pat, no one would even know the car went over. I’m so sorry you have to go thru this, but so grateful you both were there and pulled over. You are in our thoughts and prayers!!

    To echo deb, please consider donating to our local volunteer rescue/fire groups!!
    Im sure donations of food and hot drinks woukd gladly be accepted too as they search in the cold rain today. There are many ways to give, sometimes the smallest gestures mean the most.
    For all of us not gifted with the amazing bad ass super powers of these volunteers, the best thing we can do is support them in whatever way feasible.

    I, for one, feel SO proud and blessed by our amazing tech rescue crew and the ongoing incredible reporting by kym. Amazing people we tend to take for granted as theyre always here for us.

    This is the humboldt spirit i want to see continue, where we truly help one another in extremely generous ways. Where being there for one another is the norm.

    To the family/friends, our community grieves for you, just the not-knowing is heart breaking.

    To any media outlets, give cal-trans a call and ask why they haven’t put reflectors or guard rails at the edges of pull outs river side on that stretch. We’d all appreciate it!!

  • Thanks for the excellent article. Can either the author or someone local to this county post the links to the county rescue organizations, so that we can donate?

  • It is so sickening that there are no guardrails along much of that stretch of road. Just looking via Google Maps street view, and I’m experiencing such anxiety about that edge. I can’t imagine actually having to drive there, especially in horrible weather or in the evening/night. There is definitely some state culpability in this tragedy. I hate seeing from the street view that there are somewhat broader areas down the road where the family could have pulled over if only they’d realized they might have had a safer experience there.

  • All I can say is how sad and devastating this is for their family and the families here at Meadows elementary. These children are wonderful and their mother is the sweetest most personable women i’ve ever met. She always showed up in the morning with a smile on her face. I hope and pray that they are found. Our hearts are shattered for this family.

  • I was there driving south from Trinidad on Friday April 6th. I took the Avenue of the Giants road and stopped at the Eel River for a break at around 3pm. I know while I was driving around 1 pm that day the rain was coming down really hard. It could be that where they went off the road at that time,they might not have seen very well while driving there, or the shoulder where they pulled off was too saturated with water and it gave way.It’s so sad to lose an entire family so suddenly. What a tragic accident and I’m so glad that the witnesses were able to call for help. Where there is beauty, always be aware. I travel highway 1 often in Northern Ca. you simply can’t take your eyes off the road at all. Driving in Northern Ca. is quite different than down south. My condolences go out to the family, may you rest in peace.

  • This. Iis so terrible. That river is swift. And has many deep holes. I cannot even imagine what that poor family went through. I’ve kayaked that river when it is that high and you can go a miles real fast. They’re could be debris going to the fork and beyond from where the wreck was. It would only take a couple days to get that far.

  • Deepest condolence to Thottapillys family. May their little soul Rest In Peace. Tragic end indeed. I really hope the boy is found alive somewheee . Please install guard rail and save lives

  • My deepest condolence to Thottapillys family. I couldn’t imagine such a horrible incident. From the day one onwards i have been started checking their updates in online. Even I & wife always talking about the incident especially about the innocent kids how did they struggle in the deepest water. No one get this kind of incident again. My heart is so much wait now, am trying to control my dears while typing my comments. May their souls Rest In Peace.

  • What a terrible terrible tragedy! Happy cheerful family one moment, gone the next. Puts our mortality and how we always hope we will wake up to an alarm the next morning into perspective. I do not know the family, but their smiling faces from the photos haunt me. The witnesses who put in the first call and the rescue teams deserve our gratitude for their selfless efforts. We may never get an answer to why the vehicle fell into the river, all we can do is pray for peace for the departed souls and some measure of closure to the family members left behind. There is too much cruelty and sadness in the world around us.

  • May God give strength to the aged parents who lost their child and his entire family .

  • Months after this extremely sorrowful event, my mind still shudders at the final moments and what must have gone through the minds of this loving family. Such events are beyond sadness. I still can’t figure out why the vehicle did not stop. I am sure these are questions on the minds of most. At the very least, the state of CA should install guard rails to prevent future tragedies.

Leave a Reply to Kam Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *