MIAMI, OK — Rescue workers dropped blankets over the bridge railing Thursday to wreck victims waiting to be plucked from the roof of a sport utility vehicle that had landed in the frigid waters of the Spring River.
“They were dressed mostly in light coats,” Frank Geasland, Ottawa County emergency management director, said of the mushroom farm workers who were traveling to Miami from Carthage, Mo., when the accident happened about 6 a.m. on the Will Rogers Turnpike. “One only had a T-shirt on; I don't know if he lost his coat trying to get out.”
Geasland said the six people who managed to climb out of the vehicle as it rested in water about 5 feet deep were exposed for two hours to the minus 11 degree temperatures.
After dive team members reached them, two survivors were placed on backboards and the boat was pushed to the shore. Divers followed in the same manner with the other survivors, Geasland said, then opened the door of the SUV and cut the seat belts to free the two people who were inside but had not survived the accident.
Leonor Alcano, 31, and Irma Garcia, 37, died at the scene from blunt force trauma, according to Cherokee Ballard, spokeswoman for the state medical examiner.
The third victim, Douglas Monzon, 22, had fallen from the roof, Geasland said.
“When we got to him, he was still under water,” he said.
Monzon was attempting to grab a rescue rope when he fell into the water, Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers said. He died Thursday at the hospital.
Geasland, the leader of the dive team, described the accident scene as horrific.
The five survivors remained hospitalized Friday in Joplin, Mo. Julio Garcia, 21, was listed in fair condition, said Christen Stark, Freeman Health System spokeswoman. Samuel Hernandez, 22, also was taken to the Joplin hospital, but Stark said she had no information about his condition.
Fransica Cosagua, 21, was listed Friday in good condition. Mario Romero, 30, was in serious condition, and Eli Feliberto, 19, was in fair condition, said Miranda Lewis, St. John's Medical Center spokeswoman.
The group was from Guatemala, said Evelyn Chavez, a friend who lives in Carthage. She said Monzon left behind a 1-year-old daughter. Chavez said it isn't known when or where a memorial service will be held.
Employees at Engelbrecht Farms in Miami were remembering their three co-workers on Friday, the owner said.
“This is devastating for their families as well as our work family,” owner Scott Engelbrecht said.
The victims and survivors were hand harvesters for the business, Engelbrecht said. They had worked there from as little as a month to more than two years, Engelbrecht said.
The mushroom-growing operation was closed Wednesday because of the weather but had reopened Thursday.
“The local roads were fine,” Engelbrecht said.
The highway patrol reported that Alcano was driving the westbound SUV about six miles southwest of the Missouri border when it lost control and hit a concrete wall before flipping over the side of the bridge.
“The vehicle was halfway submerged and there was water up to its windows,” highway patrol spokesman Lt. George Brown said.
When the vehicle plummeted 61 feet into the river it broke through about 6 inches of ice and landed about 30 feet from the shoreline, Brown said.
The crash happened near the spot of another deadly wreck with far different weather conditions. Temperatures on the turnpike were between 110 and 115 degrees on June 26, 2009, when a tractor-trailer rig slammed into several vehicles that had stopped for a previous crash near Miami. Ten people died.
County, state and tribal rescue units battled the heat for hours in that crash as they tended to the injured and pulled bodies from wrecked vehicles.
Brown said the SUV remained in the water Friday, and there was no hurry to get it out. He said crews wouldn't be able to reach the vehicle until the weather clears.
Brown said it's ultimately the responsibility of the owner to get a wrecker service to remove the vehicle, but it will require a tow truck with a lot of cable.