[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
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.”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.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.
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.”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. 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. Suiting up and planning to be safe took some time. Southern Humboldt County Technical Rescue and Hopland Fire Department sent their swift water rescue teams. There were other volunteers 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…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:
- Vehicle Upside Down in Water by Confusion Hill on 101
- Rescuers Unable to Recover Occupant(s) or Vehicle After It Plunged Into Eel River
- CHP Searched Sunday for Vehicle and Occupant(s) That Disappeared Into the Eel on Friday
- River Still Hasn’t Dropped Enough to Locate Vehicle That Was Swallowed Last Friday
- Dive Teams Sought for Missing People in the Hart Accident off Hwy 1 and the Missing Vehicle That Was Swallowed by the Eel River on Friday
- Multiple Agencies Searching for Vehicle Swallowed by Eel River