The search for the Santa Clarita family of four whose vehicle plunged into a Northern California river more than a week ago has entered a new and tragic chapter.
Authorities have discovered the family's maroon Honda Pilot, which had veered off the 101 Freeway and plunged into the Eel River, near Leggett, the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office announced Monday. Inside the vehicle, which was recovered Sunday, were the bodies of 41-year-old Sandeep Thottapilly and his 9-year-old daughter, Saachi. Two days earlier, the body of 38-year-old Soumya Thottapilly was pulled from the river.
On Monday afternoon, the body of 12-year-old Siddhant Thottapilly was found submerged in the river about six miles north of the crash site.
The Valencia family had visited Portland, Ore., and was traveling to a friend's home in San Jose on April 6, authorities said. Shortly after 1 p.m. that day, a Honda Pilot matching the description of the one the family was driving, was reported to be submerged in the river.
The driver was pulling over to the side of the road amid heavy rain just before the vehicle went over the edge. The driver may have misjudged where the road ended, according to the California Highway Patrol. Authorities have said the stretch of highway that runs through the rural area gets particularly windy and that the embankment is heavily forested and drops 50 to 100 feet down.
The woman's body was found in the water by authorities searching the river by boat, Mendocino County Sheriff-Coroner Thomas Allman said. Authorities, who originally had said the body was a child's, anticipate that an autopsy will be performed early next week.
The body was found 7 miles away from the crash site — a fact that did not surprise Allman.
"This river at the flood stage is unforgiving," he said.
Hampered initially by heavy rainfall, search crews were unable to locate the vehicle, but did find automobile parts as well as personal items. Those items were positively identified as belonging to the Thottapilly family by relatives, authorities said.
Rescue workers continued to search for the vehicle and its occupants. They have been using CHP helicopters, boats equipped with sonar, kayaks, river boards, jet skis and dive teams, authorities said.
At about 11:30 a.m. Sunday, a boating team noticed the smell of gasoline coming from the water roughly one-half mile north of the reported crash site, the Sheriff's Office said. Searchers began to probe the water and located a vehicle approximately 4 to 6 feet underwater.
When divers entered the water, they felt what they believed to be a person inside of the vehicle.
"Visibility was extremely poor," according to a department press release. "And divers noted the vehicle was encased in a large amount of sediment from the river current."
Several hours later, at about 6:30 p.m., the vehicle was partially removed from the Eel River by use of a tow truck. It was then that the two bodies were found.
The Eel River dumps into the Pacific Ocean, and search crews will continue to explore all the way to the river's mouth if they have to, Allman said. Law enforcement resources have been stretched, Allman said, due to searchers and investigation related to the Washington state Hart family of eight, whose vehicle plunged off a Mendocino County cliff into the Pacific Ocean surf last month.
CHP Capt. Bruce Carpenter said the two incidents, probably involving 12 fatalities, are "unprecedented for this county."
"Our hearts go out to these families," Carpenter said.
9:40 p.m.: This article was updated to reflect that the fourth member of the missing family was found.