SUV plunges into icy Okla. river; killing 3

This frame grab from KOTV video in Tulsa, Okla., shows a crew rescuing people that were trapped in a vehicle that plummeted from a bridge into the Spring River, Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011, near Miami, Okla. Oklahoma authorities say the pickup truck, carrying as many as eight people, drove off of snow-covered Interstate 44 and into the river. (AP Photo/Courtesy KOTV, Tulsa)

February 3, 2011 1:30:05 PM PST
An SUV packed with eight people veered off of an icy highway bridge on Thursday, launching itself off a plowed snow bank and over a guardrail before plummeting more than 80 feet into an icy river. Authorities said three people were killed and five others were injured.

The accident happened at about 6:30 a.m., less than nine hours after one of two westbound lanes of Interstate 44 was reopened for traffic. The highway was rendered impassable Tuesday night by the powerful blizzard that barreled through Oklahoma and much of the nation, and hundreds of stranded motorists had to be helped to safety.

Two people were pronounced dead shortly after the accident and a third died later at a hospital, Oklahoma Highway Patrol Lt. George Brown said. The five others were treated at hospitals in Joplin, Mo.

Television footage showed the large vehicle resting upright and partially submerged in the Spring River. A rescuer said the water there was only waist-deep, but Brown said hypothermia would have quickly set in.

"This is a fall of 80 feet or better ... that alone is a very dangerous type of crash. This is a very traumatic crash," Brown said.

More than 20 inches of snow had fallen in the area and the air temperature Thursday morning was minus-11 degrees, making the rescue operation difficult.

Motorists who witnessed the accident said they peered over the side of the bridge and spotted six people outside of the truck in the icy water and two others inside the vehicle, Brown said.

The rescue teams got a small boat, hoisted it down in the water and started the recovery," Brown said. "The ground temperature was 11 degrees below zero, so it would take only a second to become hypothermic in this water and ice."

Grady Weston, the assistant chief of the Newton County (Mo.) Rescue and Recovery squad, said the SUV had broken through ice and was half-submerged when his crews arrived. "Three of us waded out into the river ... and helped get the last three or four out," Weston said.

Authorities declined to release most of the victims' names or say where they live. A decal reading "Enrique" was emblazoned on the top of the truck's windshield.

The plows that cleared the four-lane highway's outside lanes pushed the snow up against the outside guardrails, and that snow acted as a ramp when the SUV hit it, Ottawa County Sheriff Terry Durborow said.

"She hit that and just went airborne," the sheriff said. "I don't know if she lost control of her vehicle or not. She just jumped the guard rail off that bridge."

"It's probably the worst conditions I've seen, and I've lived here all my life," Durborow said.

Three survivors were listed in serious condition at the St. John's Regional Medical Center in Joplin, according to David Morris, the hospital's director of marketing. The Freeman Health Center at Joplin received three survivors, as well, according to spokeswoman Christen Stark. She said one of the three men, Julio Garcia, was in fair condition, but she declined to say how the other two were fairing.

Brown declined to speculate about whether the highway may have been re-opened prematurely, given the persisting dangerous conditions.