3 killed when SUV plunges into icy river

MIAMI, Okla. (AP) — An SUV carrying eight men to work at a mushroom farm Thursday veered off of a snowy highway bridge and launched itself off of an angled, plowed snowdrift and over the guardrail before plummeting more than 80 feet into a shallow icy river below.

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A vehicle plummeted from a bridge into the Spring River, Thursday, near Miami, Okla. Authorities say the Chevy Avalanche was carrying eight people, three of whom died.

Three of the men were killed and the others were injured after their red Chevrolet Avalanche careened off the Interstate 44 bridge and into the Spring River.

“This is a fall of 80 feet or better ... that alone is a very dangerous type of crash. This is a very traumatic crash,” Oklahoma Highway Patrol Lt. George Brown said. He said all eight men were in their 20s.

“The ground temperature was 11 degrees below zero, so it would take only a second to become hypothermic in this water and ice,” Brown said.

Two of the victims died when the truck hit the shallow river, and the six others climbed on top of the vehicle, according to a state trooper who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to reporters. He said one of the six, later identified as Douglas Monzon, fell into the river while reaching for a blanket rescue crews had thrown him, and that crews reached Monzon about an hour later in the river.

Monzon was taken to The Freeman Health Center across the state border in Joplin, Mo., where he was declared dead of his injuries shortly after noon.

Authorities have not released the names of the other men killed.

The accident occurred about 6:30 a.m., less than nine hours after officials reopened one of the highway’s two westbound lanes. The highway was made impassable Tuesday night by the snowstorm that barreled through Oklahoma and much of the nation, and hundreds of stranded drivers had to be taken to safety.

The trooper who asked not to be named said there was no indication that the truck was speeding or being driven in an unsafe manner.

Ottawa County Sheriff Terry Durborow said the truck’s driver simply “went airborne.”

“I don’t know if (he) lost control of the vehicle or not. (He) just jumped the guard rail off that bridge,“ Durborow said.

All of the men were from the Carthage, Mo., area, about 25 miles east of the accident site, said Scott Engelbrecht, who runs the mushroom farm in Miami where the men worked. The company, Engelbrecht Farms, was shuttered Wednesday because of the weather and reopened Thursday. Workers heard the news about their colleagues shortly after 9 a.m., he said.

Interstate 44 — also known as the Will Rogers Turnpike — was shut down when more than 20 inches of snow, sleet and ice fell during a blizzard that stretched from the Southwest to New England. Road crews reopened one lane in both direction Wednesday, but highway officials urged caution as temperatures at 10-below-zero and colder kept roads frozen.

The plowed snow banks on the bridge formed an almost perfect 45 degree angle. However, Damrill downplayed any suggestion that the road should not have been reopened.

Oklahoma began preparing for the snowstorm last week by stockpiling solvents and salts to treat roads, but the size of the blizzard seemed to overwhelm the response. For a time Tuesday and Wednesday, the National Guard and state troopers had to pluck stranded motorists from roadways.

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.

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.

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.

Three survivors were at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin, according to David Morris, the hospital’s director of marketing. Freeman Health Center at Joplin also received received three men, including Monzon. Freeman spokeswoman Christen Stark said one of the other two men, Julio Garcia, was in fair condition, but she declined to say how the third man was faring.

Brown said all remaining survivors were in serious but stable condition recovering from hypothermia, and that they were expected to survive.

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