Relatives of Missing Thottapilly Family Identify Items Found at Eel River Crash Site

Thottapilly family

A photo of Soumya, Siddhant, Sandeep and Saachi Thottapilly taken several years ago. [Photo used with permission of relatives]

On Tuesday, relatives of the missing Thottapilly family identified items, found during a search of the Eel River crash site where a vehicle tumbled into the swollen muddy water April 6, as belonging to their loved ones. Because of the high swift waters law enforcement judged that rescue operations would not be safe.

flooding Eel River north of Leggett

On Friday, water continued to rise where the vehicle went into the Eel River. [Photo provided by Southern Humboldt Technical Rescue]

On Monday, the relatives had posted flyers about their missing family. This led to them learning that the vehicle that had gone into the Eel River might match the car belonging to Soumya and Sandeep Thottapilly.

On Tuesday, they drove to near the crash site where they were met with Michelle Bushnell, president of the local Chamber of Commerce, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman, CHP spokesperson Officer William Wunderlich, and Diana Totten, spokesperson for Southern Humboldt County Technical Rescue. The community reached out to the Thottapilly relatives and attempted to help as much as possible.

Benbow Inn

The historic Benbow Inn circa 2008. [Photo By Gabriel Millos via Wikimedia Commons]

The family was escorted to the Benbow Historic Inn. A meeting room was also provided where the family learned about the search that had begun that day.

Search crews prepare to head downstream to begin their search.

Crews prepare to head downstream to begin their search on Tuesday. [Photo by Mark McKenna]

Water conditions had improved in the last few days and a search was underway of the crash site. The family expressed that they wanted to see the accident site. While there, searchers located multiple items in the river. Sandeep Thottapilly’s brother recognized a cap belonging to his missing sibling. His cousin recognized little Saachi’s sweater.

On Wednesday, searchers used a helicopter and a sonar-equipped boat to search. Unfortunately, though volunteers and agency crews worked long hours, the missing maroon Honda Pilot belonging to the Thottapillys remained hidden beneath the high waters of the Eel River.

Search teams covered around 12 miles of riverbank during two days of intensive effort, according to the Mendocino Sheriff’s Office.

According to Lt. Shannon Barney of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department, an incoming storm forced the searches actually on the river itself to shut down until Friday. He explained the search hasn’t completely stopped. He said that Piercy Volunteer Fire Department, Leggett Volunteer Fire Department, Southern Humboldt County Technical Rescue, the California Highway Patrol and the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department will all be patrolling the area.

“We will be monitoring the water,” Barney said this morning. “We don’t know how much it rose during the rains last night…We’ll be gearing up for another push tomorrow.” Barney said some searchers then will be likely “using jet skies to get into the less accessible areas that they were not comfortable going into yesterday.”

He also said there will be another helicopter brought in to search the whole area tomorrow.

The Thottapilly family are grateful and continue to thank the volunteers who are working hard on the search.

Below is a statement from the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office:

The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office and the California Highway Patrol, Garberville Area Office, continued their efforts along the South Fork of the Eel River, just north of the town of Leggett CA, to locate and recover a vehicle that was reported to have been submerged in the river on around 1:10 PM on Friday 4/06/2018.  During their investigation the Highway Patrol discovered a possible car part, that was thought to have been broken from the vehicle, at the scene.  Through their investigation they were able to determine that particular part belonged to a Honda Pilot, maroon in color.  On Monday 4/9/18 the Highway Patrol became aware of an overdue family of 4, the Thottapilly family from Santa Clarita CA, who was believed to be traveling through the Redwood Coast Highway, on vacation.  Their investigation showed the overdue family was supposed to have arrived to visit a friend in the San Jose area on 4/6/2018 but did not make it as scheduled.  The family was last heard from in the town of Klamath, Del Norte County, on 4/5/2018.  The Highway Patrol developed information this family were traveling in a family vehicle, a 2016 maroon Honda Pilot.  The family was officially reported as missing to the San Jose Police Department on 4/8/2018.

The California Highway Patrol contacted the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office in the early afternoon of Friday 4/6/18 regarding the availability of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Dive Team to evaluate the possibility of vehicle recovery.  After a complete assessment it was determine that diving or swift water rescue operations could not be conducted in a safe manner due to the height and flow of the river during the storm.  The Sheriff’s Office and the Highway Patrol agreed to do continuous evaluations as the river levels receded.

On 4/10 and again on 4/11/2018 it was determined the water levels would allow the insertion of Swift Water Rescue Teams to conduct a bank search as well as some limited “probing”, a technique using a long pole being probed underwater to see if the vehicle or anything metallic could be located.  The teams accessed the river in inflatable boats and on River Boards, a small floatation device designed to allow full access under overhanging trees or tight areas not accessible by boat.  The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office also assisted with the use of their jet boat with side scan sonar system.

Between the two search days the teams were able to cover approximately 12 miles of river bank.  The teams were unsuccessful in locating the vehicle or any occupants from the vehicle.  They were able to locate numerous items that appeared to have come from a vehicle body and interior.  Some of these items were consistent with a Honda vehicle.  Also located were various personal items that were consistent with a family traveling on vacation.  Several items have been positively identified, by family members, as belonging to the Thottapilly family.  These items were of a personal nature and will not be described further at this time, but it does confirm the fact the vehicle that was seen going into the river was that of the Thottapilly family.

The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office has been in contact with numerous other county dive teams and technical rescue responders that can be called upon, when the vehicle is located, to assist with recovery of the vehicle.  Once recovered the Highway Patrol will conduct a complete mechanical inspection of the vehicle as part of the accident investigation.

A joint Press Conference of the California Highway Patrol and the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office will be held at the Leggett Cal FIRE Station, 69310 North Highway 101 Leggett, at noon on 4/13/2018 to answer any press related questions related to this investigation.

The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office and the California Highway Patrol would like to thank the following agencies/entities for their assistance thus far in this incident:

Rescue Solutions
Southern Humboldt Technical Rescue Team
Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office Boat Team
Piercy Fire Department
Leggett Valley Fire Department
Little Lake Fire Department
Ukiah Valley Fire Department
Hopland Fire Department
Fresno County Sheriff’s Office
California National Guard
California Governors Office of Emergency Services

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  • unbridled philistine

    Damn! Hurts my soul to think about those kids still in the river! Water flowing on them! Hope the seat belts hold them inside for recovery?

    • Covelo or busted

      Please remove this post of unbri- phil . its disturbing , and would especially be to any family member reading this.

  • Heartbreaking. God Bless Them All.

  • So, so sad! Life is so fleeting. Can change so suddenly……

  • So horrible, RIP! With 2 much smaller kids of my own I can imagine a lot of things. Auto safety hammer for breaking auto glass, with seat belt cutter, 2 for $9

    • Wow. Thank you. Learning from this beautiful family’s tragedy. It is so heartbreaking! I drove past the spot today north of Bell Glen, so touched.

  • I can’t read this without sobbing. I feel so bad for that family. Thank you to the good people out there trying to help in this freezing weather.

  • This is nightmarish. I’m surprised there hasn’t been an investigation into who was tailgating.

    • If you go back and read the witness statement you’ll see that no where does it mention a tailgater. The chp would be all over that if it was the case.
      Sounds like visibility was poor and the driver misjudged the edge, or it gave way due to saturation, or the car malfunctioned.

      • I looked into Honda Pilot recalls and malfunctions, specifically brake issues (because the Witness doesn’t remember seeing brake lights) and I found many years did have a brake malfunction; but opposite of what seems to have occurred here.

        Pilots have had recalls due to brakes engaging without the driver stepping on the brake pedal.

        Whatever did happen – seems to be a horrible accident.

        My sincere condolences to the family and friends of this family.

        Maybe some flowers or wreaths could be put up by someone in the area (if not already) for the incoming family and friends of the victims. Show some local love.

    • J. Dubbs, did you read Kym’s article about the couple who was driving behind them? They saw the car pull over, go up on 2 wheels and slip into the river. They reported it, and the husband ran back to see if he could locate them. It does not sound like they were being tailgated, but just pulled off the road to look at the river.

    • J Dubbs,
      There wasn’t ANY tailgating. My wife and I were a good distance back of the vehicle, were NOT in a hurry, the Giants game was scheduled for 7 PM and it was only 1 PM and it had been rained out already, had not been pushing/tailgating, it was bad driving conditions as evidenced by seeing so very many cars pulled off to the side all the way from Oregon down to San Francisco— let that thought go and stop being so negative. The Thottapilly family and friends need love, support, prayers not words like yours and for that matter my wife and I do NOT need your negativity. This horrific ordeal has crushed us. Being helpless as to not being able to help, not be able to be a good witness–color or make of car, talking to the father’s sister late Monday night with the help of Kym…….. No we were not focused on the color or make of the car until the car was in danger, then we were focused on the nightmare of seeing the car go up on two wheels and then flip toward the river. I frantically ran to help, helpless from being able to help, then could not help as a witness, relived the nightmare in my mind the entire weekend, then found out Monday night that our worst fears were realized– not just one person or two but an entire wonderful young family. I did not sleep Monday night after finding that fact out and speaking with the father’s sister. Talking to his sister helped the sister and family, but it was more than difficult. J Dubbs try to help the Thottapilly family get through their horrific loss instead of being so negative. Whomever was driving was not being tailgated, may have had a medical issue, might have pulled over to speak to children arguing in the back seat, I have no idea why the driver pulled over. I would hope that you will in the future be positive, but most importantly, show compassion for people like my wife and I who were thrust into this because we tried to help. Just try to support, pray for, be compassionate to the Thottapilly family and their friends. It is about them, not you, not my wife or I, it is about the Thottapilly family and their friends!!!!!!!!!! Put positive energy into helping them please.

      • Pat thank you for writing, your words bring tears to my eyes.
        So sorry you have to go through this but I think everyone is so so very glad you saw and reported the incident.
        Thanks to awesome kym for connecting the family with pat, im sure it helped the family so much! And honestly without you, every area from Klamath to the bay would be searching for the family right now with no way to even know what to focus on.
        Who knows how long it will take to find the car and the not knowing would be so much worse. Really. You did all you could♡

        Pat I want to encourage you to reach out to grief services, the chp may know of some, or your local hospice.
        As youre experiencing, these things can haunt you more than you’d think. There are lots of websites about grief and trauma from witnessing accidents. See if there are any groups or therapists that resonate with you and your wife.
        Ive been through some things that made me realize that sometimes talking with others who’ve experienced the same thing can really help a lot.

        Just talking about it as much as possible with friends&family can really help with not burying the emotions.
        If theres anyone reading this who has had the same unfortunate circumstances in their life, please reach out to these folks.

        Blessings to you all

        • Everything Thank You said, and thank you Pat. Without you there would be no closure on this for a long time. You were in the right place at the right time for all involved. Find peace in that.

          Again, Kim’s relentless, compassionate reporting rings far…

      • Thank you Pat for all you’ve done. I know this family personally. My son and the little one, Saachi went to pre- k together. They are the sweetest people. The parents are very humbled and good hearted. The kids are so well raised and well behaved. It’s a huge loss for us.

        • If you know the family personally I may share some information with you. I know they are not ready for this as I am sure they are still in shock, but maybe if the time is right and they are interested then this information may be of some use. I got the idea from recalling the Roger Rodoni Memorial Interchange, which I know is a completely different circumstance, but I feel that there must be some public memorial for the family. Only they can decide that, though. I emailed Caltrans about dedicating part of the road to them or putting up some sort of roadway sign to acknowledge the loss that occurred, and received the following response:
          “Memorial highways must be created by state legislation. They generally begin by a member of the family contacting a member of the state senate or assembly to ask for support. That state representative works with Caltrans to find a suitable section of highway (or bridge), and then requests support from the county. The county supervisors must pass a resolution of support, then the state representative creates a bill which must be passed by both houses and signed by the governor. The family must then pay for the signs and installation, the signs are ordered, and then installed.
          Let me know if there is anything else I can help you with.
          Phil Frisbie, Jr.”
          Maybe if there is enough interest and support, then the funds can be raised through public donations. By the way, maybe anyone has begun a public donation page to support the needs of the relatives of the family can provide that information. Thank you.

      • My heart goes out to the family. It’s unimaginably tragic….and my soul hurts for those they leave behind, the elderly parents and other family. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about this.

        I am sorry you and your wife had to witness such tragedy. Wish it had never happened. But thanks to you, authorities and family atleast know what transpired. So sorry for the mindless comments some folks post.

        Grateful to all the work done by the volunteers and authorities. Such heroes.

        Even though don’t know the family personally, am sure, it has affected lot many people out there….how fickle life is!

      • Thank you from the bottom of my heart that you did everything you could given the poor road conditions. Like many have said nobody would have known to look in that river had you not seen or reported it. If sitting across the country and just thinking of this family has given me sleepless nights I can only imagine what you and your wife are going through. You brought closure to the family and many of us who have been following the story closely. We were also on a spring break road trip last week and drove back home on Thursday just like this family. And we are a family of 4 just like them. Just thinking of what they would have gone through in those last moments struggling to get out and help their kids is just heartbreaking to say the least. Thank you thank you again for your presence and witness statement. Please ignore the negative comments of who was driving how and what the driver did wrong. None of us will ever know why they decided to pull over.

      • I’m so sorry. This is such a sad situation. My heart goes out to you and to the family swept into the river. Please don’t take the meaness of some people to heart. There is compassion for you.

      • Thanks for the write up , definitely it will be a nightmare for you, hope you will come out of it. God at least sent someone to see what happened unlike a un known mystery which happened in many cases. Take care of yourself and your wife… may the extended family of Thottapilly get strength and help, my deepest condolences to the parents and the siblings friends and families

  • Heartbreaking, it makes you realize just how precious life is, as being a good curtious man pulling over to let people pass by, not knowing the extent of being polite to others would take his whole familys lives away in just a few minutes!

    • In this particular case, it is unknown why the driver pulled over, per Mr. Berkowitz’s response above, who was a good distance behind, as he also stated.

      Deepest condolences at this difficult time to the family and friends of those who perished.

      Mr. Berkowitz, to say the least, is also a caring, compassionate individual, as are all the rescuers and those providing assistance.

      The world could certainly use more people like that.

  • Blessings to the family and friends.
    Such a tragedy.
    It may sound cheesy but I hope the family thats here can be taken to the avenue or other spot with old growth redwoods. In my experience they are very comforting to lean against and cry.

    Thank you to the agencies & all our amazing folks helping out, how lucky we are to have them, the volunteers that respond no matter who needs help, local or not. May others be inspired by it.

    ♡ RIP ♡

  • My heart goes out to the family and friends of this young family. It is so hard to lose family , especially with having to be involved in a recovery so far from home.
    Thank you to all those trying to help them too.

  • This is so sad. Heartbreaking tragedy. My thoughts are with their family and lived ones.

    Thank you to all the amazing volunteers out there doing the hard work! You are the real heros! Hope they can find this family soon so they can rest in peace and their family can start the healing process.

  • So sorry. What a beautiful family

  • I can only imagine the last few moments of this beautiful family especially the innocent kids. How helpless parents must have felt with kids in the car. Just takes a second for the entire life to change. I dont know this family personally but this hits home in every way. Much love to all their kiths and kins and prayers for them to stay strong.

  • My kids wonder why I ask them to call me from their final destination when they get there. Also when they return to their homes. They think I worry too much. You never know what can happen. My heart goes out to the family for their huge loss.😢

  • This is so heartbreaking. I keep thinking of this family, especially the children. Thank you for your in-depth reporting. I hope their bodies can be recovered for their family. I feel for all of them. So, So tragic.

  • To those of you who live in the area and know the road and the conditions last Friday, is it possible the car could have hydroplaned off the road?

  • What's in your definition of American?

    I can’t even imagine the terror the family went through in the water. What beautiful children. The family looks like what I envision every American should accept as citizens. They will be my poster family I show when ICE sends parents and children back to their parent’s birth country. Such a tragic loss of an American perfect family!!

  • If their tires were worn, yes. If they were new, probably not. But it was extremely wet.

  • So, so sad!!! Every time I see an update I shed more tears, Heartbreaking for sure. My thoughts and prayers to family and friends. I am so sorry for your loss.

  • My heart goes out for them 😞 what they must have gone through when the vehicle fell in to the valley, can’t imagine…I believe in miracles and wish they come back soon, stuck somewhere but safe… My prayers with their family…

  • Veteran's Friend

    This story is unspeakably sad. My deepest sympathy to the family.
    To the searchers go special thanks with the realization that they are here to help me & mine if needed. Mostly volunteers, but every one so deserving of our respect & SUPPORT

  • A local with heavy heart

    So very very sad. Condolences to their family and thank you volunteers and emergency people for trying so hard to recover them. A real shame.

  • Hug ur loved ones tight

    Lisa i wasn’t there but its possible, when we get heavy rains many spots on the 101 have standing water. Tho in my experience hydroplaning usually results in a spin out, anyone else know? And often on straightaways.

    That stretch is very curvy and narrows, if im thinking of the right spot.
    The witnesses said the driving conditions were bad. The car could have come close to an edge that gave way or misjudged where it ended or the driver had a medical emergency while driving.
    Anyone out there who understands such things, can taking a curve into a pullout flip a car on its side? Not going fast…
    Im sure the chp is doing their best to look at all possible causes.

    Having some reflectors or simple railing to denote where the pullout edge is would really help in general!
    Lets hope they can figure out what happened and take appropriate action so this doesnt happen again.
    Its heartbreaking regardless.

  • A tragic and sad incident. Prayers and hope shall not end.
    God help the victims and their family.

  • Realistically with currents as they were and are, how far could this car drift down the river? How far could it be carried downstream? This whole story is heartbreaking. For the family and for the people who saw everything happen from behind. Tragic. My prayers go out to all of you. Family, friends, everyone. To those who will, in time, find the car and the family. Prayers to you all.

  • So so sad. My heart and prayers go out to the friends and family of this beautiful young family. So glad to read that our community is helping family members. That’s what we are about. <3

  • Let’s save the most beautiful rainbow 🌈 this spring for the Thottapilly family and Comend all the first responders and dedicated community members for there dedication and bravery.

  • I think it’s possible the driver may have fallen asleep, that would explain the lack of brake lights.
    They were headed home after a long road trip, and might have been tired. It only takes a second or two to drift off the road. The rest of the family could have been napping as well and unable to alert the driver to brake or take evasive action. The witness didn’t state whether or not the driver used their turn signal. Guard rails may have helped, but they can also direct a vehicle back across the road into oncoming traffic.

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