LIGGETT (CBS SF) — The four bodies of a missing Southern California family have been recovered from the Eel River after a massive search effort.
The Thottapilly family died when their vehicle went off the road, careened into and sank in the river during an intense rainstorm, authorities said.
Officials say the SUV was reported to have submerged on April 6.
The body of the mother, Soumya Thottapilly, 38, was recovered a week later on April 13.
The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department said that on April 15 the search crews followed a strong smell of gasoline in the river and located the submerged SUV approximately 4-6 feet beneath the water about 1/2 mile from the crash site.
“Search divers entered the water and were able to feel what they believed to be a person inside of the vehicle,” the sheriff’s department said in a press release. “Visibility was extremely poor and divers noted the vehicle was encased in a large amount of sediment from the river current.”
Several hours later, the divers made a gruesome discovery — inside the SUV were the bodies of father Sandeep Thottapilly, 41, and his 9-year-old daughter Saachi.
The body of the couple’s 12-year-old son, Siddhant, was found around 4 p.m. on Monday. A search team found his body submerged in the river, approximately 6 miles north of the reported crash site.
The family from Santa Clarita were last heard from on April 5, when they were in Klamath-Redwood National Park area in Northern California.
CHP Garberville Commander Randy England said the family checked out of a Holiday Inn at 10 a.m. that day.
The Thottapillys had been on a spring break road trip, traveling home on Highway 101 from Portland, Oregon to Santa Clarita, California during a rainstorm.
They were reported missing when they failed to arrive at a relative’s home in San Jose for a Friday stopover.
The California Highway Patrol said that witnesses have told them they saw an SUV matching the description of the one owned by the Thottapilly family rolled through a highway pullout, slam into trees as it went down a 150-foot embankment and crash into the swift-moving waters of the Eel River.
“It (the SUV) did not come to a complete stop (as it got to the end of the pullout),” England told reporters. “It was cloudy and pouring rain. We had quite the storm going on.”
The sheriff’s office said last week that along with various personal items found along the river that were consistent with a family traveling on vacation, there were several items positively identified by relatives as belonging to the Thottapilly family.
The items had turned up over the course of searches of the South Fork of the Eel River.
Water levels at the time of the accident were too high and conditions too unsafe for a thorough search. This week, water levels have subsided enough to allow for a more concentrated search, the sheriff’s office said.
In addition to the insertion of Swift Water Rescue Teams to conduct a bank search, there was 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 using smaller floatation devices. The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office also aided in the search with the use of their jet boat with side scan sonar system.