Washington, DC – Emotional and visibly shaken even days after the accident, Pat Berkowitz spoke to Tejinder Singh, editor of India America Today on Sunday night (April 15) to share details of the day he saw a vehicle pulling over in front of his car, going two wheels up in the air and then vanishing out of sight into the swollen Eel river on Friday, April 5, north of Leggett.
Berkowitz had been traveling from Brookings, Oregon to San Francisco, with his wife, Lorraine, to watch a game. “My wife was driving,” he said. “I was on the cellphone as I got an email informing me that the game was canceled.”
With his eyes still on the phone, he first heard his wife apply slight brakes to maintain a distance from the vehicle in front and then heard her exclaim, “Oh! Ah Ah!” He looked up and saw a car, which wasn’t going fast, going up on two wheels and tumbling over the edge.
Stunned by seeing what had just happened, the couple continued to the next pullout that was about 72 yards ahead. As they drove to the pullout, Berkowitz dialed 911 and described the situation.
When they came to a stop, Berkowitz ran back down the road to the accident scene. As he couldn’t see the vehicle, he followed a few feet down the slope where he could see a broken branch, a car mirror, but no sign of the car. Seeing the car mirror and oil spreading over the water, Berkowitz shouted in hopes that someone might have been flung out of vehicle but no answers came. His wife also went down the road along the river but could hardly see anything.
The couple felt powerless and completely useless for not being able to provide a helping hand, but they were comforted by the California Highway Patrol officer at the scene. “He thanked us because if we hadn’t let them know, no one would have known the vehicle had gone in the water.” Still, he said, it left him and his wife with “such a feeling of helplessness.”
With the Berkowitzs’ stopping and calling 911, it became known that a vehicle went off the edge of Hwy 101 and into the swollen Eel River north of Leggett, and disappeared before it could be identified.
Berkowitz recalled the weather and driving conditions as really bad. There were some rocks and although there was no severe storm, the area had gotten about 5 inches of rain within hours, thus the river was raging and the current was moving very fast. He repeatedly expressed sadness for not being able to help in saving any of the members of the family.
The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office and the California Highway Patrol, Garberville Area Office, confirmed the location of a vehicle and recovery of more bodies as they continued their efforts along the South Fork of the Eel River, just north of the town of Leggett, California.
On Sunday (April 15), before noon, a boating team noticed a gasoline smell emitting from the water approximately 1/2 mile north of the reported crash site (down stream). The searchers began to probe the water and located a vehicle submerged approximately 4-6 feet beneath the water. Although the visibility was extremely poor, divers noted the vehicle was encased in a large amount of sediment from the river current, according to the official updates.
By evening after recovery efforts for several hours, the vehicle was partially removed from the Eel River by use of a tow truck. This led to the recovery of the bodies of Sandeep Thottapilly and Saachi Thottapilly from inside the vehicle.
Also on Sunday, the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office Coroner’s Division was able “to identify the adult female recovered from the Eel River on 04-13-2018 as being Soumya Thottapilly,” the update noted.
The authorities announced continuation of the search operation in and around the Eel River in an attempt to locate Siddhant Thottapilly who still remains missing.
Sandeep Thottapilly, 41, vice president of the Union Bank on Santa Clarita, and his wife Soumya Thottapilly, 38, were on a road trip along with their two kids — Siddhanth, 12 and Saachi, nine — in a maroon Honda Pilot from Portland, Oregon to San Jose in Southern California, during which they went missing on April 5.