EDEN, N.C. – Searchers combed a North Carolina river Friday for two missing tubers after a family on a recreational float went over a dam, resulting in three deaths and the rescue of four people from the water.
The group of nine, all believed to be part of the same family, was floating down the Dan River on inflatable tubes and went over a dam that's about 8 feet (2.5 meters) high next to a Duke Energy plant Wednesday night, Rockingham County Emergency Services Director Rodney Cates told reporters.
A Duke Energy employee who saw some of the tubers called the situation in to 911 on Thursday afternoon, and four were rescued that day. Three tubers' bodies were also found Thursday.
Cates said that the rescued tubers spent the night floating in the water near the dam before they were found clinging to the tubes. He said they managed to stay afloat for approximately 19 hours, describing them as “very, very fatigued” when they were found. The four were taken to a hospital and were expected to survive.
Cates said the search for the two still missing was suspended late Friday afternoon and would resume Saturday. He said he was still optimistic the two missing tubers could be found alive. Earlier in the day, rescue personnel were seen hauling rafts toward the water Friday at a staging area in Eden, north of Greensboro near the Virginia state line.
“We’re still positive and optimistic, but we’ll see how things go tomorrow,” Cates told reporters.
Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page identified those rescued as Reuben Villano, 35; and children Eric, 14, and Irene, 18, all of Eden. Also rescued were Karlos Villano of LaPorte, Indiana. A news release from the sheriff's office didn't indicate how Karlos Villano was related to the others, except to say he was a visiting relative.
The sheriff's office identified the victims as Bridish Crawford, 27, and Antonio Ramon, 30, of Eden; and Sophie Wilson, 14, also of LaPorte, Indiana.
Still missing are Teresa Villano, 35, and Isiah Crawford, 7, both from Eden, the sheriff's office said.
First responders indicated the survivors were caught in fast-moving water near the dam when they were found, according to recordings of scanner traffic on broadcastify.com.
First responders could be heard over public safety radio ordering boats and other swift water rescue equipment to the area shortly after the 911 call came in around 3:15 p.m. Thursday.
“We’re taking a call on the Dan River at the dam near the Duke Energy plant. Caller is advising five tubers … went over the dam,” one person says.
A rescuer says on the recording that some of the tubers were stuck near the dam because of the pull of water flowing over it.
“They’re on that side … at the abutment for the dam. And they’re all caught in the pull. If you can come over … we can probably pull them out pretty good, hopefully,” the rescuer can be heard saying.
Cates told reporters Friday that debris and rocks in the river can puncture tubes or rafts, so it's important for people to wear life preservers. He said it wasn't clear if any of the nine were using life preservers.
“The current of the river makes it very hard to navigate, even for the most experienced swimmers. So we strongly encourage people to wear some type of personal floatation device in addition to the tube they’re in,” he said.
He said it's not unusual for people to float the river on tubes or rafts in the area, but most get out and walk around the dam, which is marked by a sign.
Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks said the employee who called 911 to report the tubers wasn't available for an interview.
Associated Press writers Jonathan Drew in Durham and Tom Foreman Jr. in Winston-Salem contributed to this report.