Searchers find “personal items” of missing Valencia family in Eel River

Search for SUV swept away in rushing river water continued Wednesday. photo courtesy CHP.
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Searchers looking for an SUV that was swept away by rushing flood waters of Eel River a week ago, fearing it might be the SUV of a missing Valencia family, found personal items Wednesday that belong to the family.

Despite the grim discovery, officials are searching for the missing family.

Since searchers entered the swollen river north of Leggett on Tuesday, they covered about 12 miles of river bank,  CHP Officer William Wunderlich of the Gaberville California Highway Patrol in Gaberville wrote in an update of the search in a CHP Facebook post.

Missing since April 5 are the Thottapilly family — Sandeep, 42, father; Soumya, 38, mother; Siddhant, 12, their son; and 9-year-old Saachi, their daughter.

The Thottapilly family, missing since Apr. 5.

Personal items

On Wednesday, searchers found a hat belonging to the father  and a sweater worn by the little girl.

“The teams were unsuccessful in locating the vehicle or any occupants from the vehicle,” Wunderlich wrote in his update.

“They were able to locate numerous items that appeared to have come from a vehicle body and interior. Some of these items were consistent with a Honda vehicle… Several items have been positively identified, by family members, as belonging to the Thottapilly family,” Wunderlich wrote.  “These items were of a personal nature and will not be described further at this time, but it does confirm the fact the vehicle that was seen going into the river was that of the Thottapilly family.”

The search continues for the family officially reported as missing to the San Jose Police Department on Apr. 8.

On Friday, April 6, as motorists traveling on US 101 battled against heavy rains, one vehicle – a maroon Honda Pilot – was seen entering Eel River, becoming submerged and making a rescue by concerned motorists who stopped impossible.

The incident happened on US Highway 101 at the Eel River, near mile post marker 95, he said, a couple of miles north of Leggett.

Swept away

“Based on our preliminary investigation and witness statements, we believe the vehicle was a 2016 or 2017 Honda Pilot maroon in color.

On Wednesday, searchers were convinced by the items pulled from the river that the ill-fated SUV belonged to the Thottapilly family.

Wednesday marked the second full day the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office and the California Highway Patrol, Garberville Area Office, continued their efforts along the South Fork of the Eel River, just north of the town of Leggett CA, to locate and recover  the SUV.

They found a possible car part, that was thought to have been broken from the vehicle, at the scene and determined it belonged to a Honda Pilot, maroon in color.

Searchers wanted to get on the rushing river earlier but officials decided it was too dangerous.

“It was determine that diving or swift water rescue operations could not be conducted in a safe manner due to the height and flow of the river during the storm,” Wunderlich reported..

Water levels

On Tuesday, water levels dropped to a level that made searching the river possible.

“Water levels would allow the insertion of Swift Water Rescue Teams to conduct a bank search as well as some limited ‘probing’, a technique using a long pole being probed underwater to see if the vehicle or anything metallic could be located.

Search teams climbed into inflatable boats and got on River Boards – a small floatation device designed to allow full access under overhanging trees or tight areas not accessible by boat.

The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office also assisted with the use of their jet boat with side scan sonar system.

If and when the missing SUV is found, the CHP is expected to carry out a complete mechanical inspection of the vehicle as part of the accident investigation.

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