SUV occupants called 911 while sinking in St. Croix; 1 man dies

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 16, 2008 - 10:54 AM

The four occupants of an SUV frantically called 911 for help as it sank in the chilly St. Croix River, saying they couldn't get out, couldn't swim and were afraid of drowning.

Their panicked voices came on two 911 calls from inside a sinking SUV, begging someone to rescue them. They told the dispatcher that they couldn't swim, the windows wouldn't open and that frigid water was all around them.

"I'm going to die in here," Mohanraj Pothiraj finally said, seconds before the Washington County dispatcher heard pounding and then lost phone contact.

Pothiraj, 28, died Monday morning, less than 12 hours after he was rescued from the St. Croix River in Stillwater.

Three companions, all women -- Deepa Veluswamy, 25; Rohini Krishnamurthy, 27, and Kalai Selvi Vijaya Kumar, 25, remain at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. All four are residents of India but are believed to work in the Minneapolis area, said Mike Johnson, chief deputy of the Washington County Sheriff's Office.

Minutes after 10 p.m., rescue vehicles arrived. Divers went to work fast, hoping those trapped would have enough air to breathe until they were saved.

But when rescuers slid into the water and broke a window, no air bubbled up -- the SUV was full of water.

"We don't know swimming," Pothiraj had told the dispatcher, according to a 911 transcript released Monday. And then, crying: "Yeah, our car is going to sink now." Finally, toward the end of the six-minute call: "We are going to drown."

The dispatcher worked frantically to determine where the SUV had gone into the river. From a second cell phone inside the sinking vehicle, a woman who placed a 911 call two minutes after the first told the dispatcher she thought they had fallen into a lake in Wisconsin.

Minutes after the vehicle sank, Stillwater police arrived on the gravel road behind the Stillwater Marina, a block south of where the Minnesota Zephyr dinner train parks. It was a dark night with few people around and no evidence of skid marks. A third 911 caller who lived in a nearby condo tried to steer police to the submerged car from an upper- floor unit.

Then, the officers saw headlights and taillights glowing under the water.

Three Stillwater firefighters, including Capt. Chris Zeuli, arrived within three minutes. It was 10:03 p.m.

Rescuers slid into the numbing water, which felt like 40 degrees. It was dark and murky, and they couldn't see. They noticed one oddity, though: the car's headlights pointed toward shore. The SUV sat on its wheels about a foot under the surface, near the ramp where the Stillwater Marina raises and lowers big boats when the seasons change.

Photographer Brian Andren, who runs a studio in downtown Stillwater, grabbed his camera and arrived just after rescue divers pulled the passengers out of the submerged vehicle, which was about 20 feet from shore.

"There were a lot of people running around and hollering to people on the dock," he said. "But the rescue looked pretty well organized."

Diver Jonas Werpy, one of the firefighters, swam into the water. He broke the rear passenger window. He didn't know what he would find inside. All he could do was reach around until he found somebody. Right away, Werpy and Zeuli found two of the car's occupants, both women. They found Pothiraj just minutes after that. All three were unconscious. They were carried to ambulances and rushed to Regions Hospital. Jon Muller, one of the paramedics, considered all three to be in critical condition.

Werpy's hands got so cold that he couldn't feel his fingers. A third firefighter, Tim Bell, entered the water. Holding onto the vehicle's luggage rack, he swept his feet through across the seats until he felt a fourth person. When he grabbed her ankle and started to pull, she rolled away from him.

"I told the guys in the boat, 'This one's still alive, but she's fighting with me,'" he said Monday. When he pulled again, she came free. He thinks she resisted because she was pressing her face against the ceiling of the car trying to get air.

Unlike her companions, the woman was conscious. "As soon as they rolled her over in the boat I could hear her gurgle and gasp," Bell said.

Search with hands

Then diver Steve Zoller, another Stillwater firefighter, entered the water to make sure there wasn't a fifth victim. "You do a lot of searching with your hands rather than your eyes," he said, searching for the unexpected. "Anything's possible."

No more than 10 minutes passed from the time the rescuers arrived on the scene to the rescue of the fourth victim.

In the middle of the night, a few hours after the crash, authorities hauled the SUV out of the water. By Monday morning, only four shoes, a glove and a ballcap remained, floating in a shimmer of leaked oil.

"It was kind of eerie," said Stillwater resident Taylor Kneubuhler, who had seen the car submerged, its lights shining. Fifteen minutes before the crash, he was walking his dog nearby. "I heard laughing and talking from this direction," he said. "The docks are closed, the marina's closed, nobody's supposed to be over here."

He doesn't know if the laughter he heard came from the people later found in the river. And police won't say what Pothiraj and the others were doing on that back road on a quiet Sunday night, typically when Stillwater sleeps.

John Gannaway, Stillwater's police chief, wouldn't comment on where the occupants of the SUV were going or how the accident occurred but that the State Patrol would do a reconstruction. No alcohol was immediately apparent, he said. Stillwater police and the Washington County Sheriff's Office will lead the investigation.

But the 911 transcripts show fear, confusion and language difficulties as the car sank. "The door is got stuck and we can't open, our fingers are frozen," one of the occupants told the dispatcher.

They sometimes spoke in broken English and sometimes in a language the dispatcher couldn't discern.

"We're sinking fast. Please," said one of the women.

"We're sending someone," replied the dispatcher, who tried to persuade the callers to break the windows with their feet, a snow brush, anything to get out.

"It's almost ...," one caller said of the water.

"Hold on, hold on," the dispatcher replied.

And finally, the dispatcher: "Ma'am. Ma'am? Their phones are dead."

Tim Harlow contributed to this story. Kevin Giles • 651-298-1554

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