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Search ended for 2 still missing after tubing accident on Dan River. 'This operation has transitioned to a recovery effort.'
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Search ended for 2 still missing after tubing accident on Dan River. 'This operation has transitioned to a recovery effort.'

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EDEN — After a third day combing the Dan River with no success, officials ended Saturday the search for two family members who have been missing since Wednesday after a tubing trip.

“We feel confident that we have exhausted all efforts to rescue, or recover, the two remaining victims," Rodney Cates, director of Emergency Services for Rockingham County, said in a news release.

He said all search, rescue and recovery efforts were being suspended.

"We have remained optimistic that we could rescue the two victims, but as we conclude over thirty hours of searching which has involved multiple aircraft as well as many swift water rescue teams from multiple jurisdictions this operation has transitioned to a recovery effort," he said.

"Our thoughts and prayers continue to go out to the victims and families of this tragic incident."

Water rescue teams from neighboring High Point, Greensboro and Forsyth County were on the Dan River and its banks here on Saturday, offering help to Rockingham County crews on Day 3 of a search for the missing tubers.

There was no sign of 7-year-old Isiah Crawford and 35-year-old Teresa Villano, both of Eden, officials said late Saturday afternoon.

The two were with a group of nine family members from Eden and Indiana who floated the Dan in tubes and went over the 8-foot low-head dam at Duke Energy's Dan River Steam Station around dark on Wednesday night.

River experts and emergency officials are calling the accident the worst they can remember in Rockingham County's history.

Four of the tubers were rescued Thursday afternoon after a Duke Energy employee saw them stranded near the dam by the utility’s steam station.

The bodies of three other family members were found later that day about 3 miles from the dam.

Such low-head dams, often called "drowning machines'' by boating experts, are notorious for trapping people in the powerful current that churns at their base.

Rescue teams and regional river guides theorize that when the tubers went over the dam, they were pulled under water by the hydraulic force of the base water and drowned. Duke Energy officials estimated Friday the water at the dam's base is roughly 3 feet deep.

Those rescued from the group were Eden resident Rueben Villano, 35, and his two children, 14-year-old Eric and 18-year-old Irene, along with their relative Karlos Villano, 14, of La Porte, Indiana. It is not known whether the survivors went over the dam or managed to avoid the drop-off.

Officials said they recovered the bodies of Bridish Crawford, 27, and Antonio Ramon, 30, both of Eden, and Sophie Wilson, 14, of La Porte, Indiana.

Cates said on Friday that he welcomed a fresh perspective from regional water rescue crews that stepped up to help. 

“(We) want somebody to look at the water, the debris in the water from a new standpoint,’’ Cates said during a videotaped news conference Friday afternoon. 

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Cates said the four survivors were discovered Thursday near the dam, clinging to the tubes in the water and had been there for many hours. They were tired, very fatigued and had been “subjected to the elements for 19 hours,’’ he said.

None were wearing life jackets at the time they were rescued and it was unclear if anyone in the group was, Cates said. The four were treated at a local hospital on Thursday. Their conditions were not available Friday, but Cates said previously their injuries were not considered life-threatening.

Cates said he did not know where the group began its Wednesday trek or at exactly what time. It was not known whether the family used its own tubes or rented them, officials said.

Saturday's continuing search was headquartered at Draper Landing, an access point to the Dan River at N.C. 770’s crossing of the river. 

The landing is about 2.6 miles north of the site of Wednesday’s accident, a dam belonging to Duke Energy. The Dan River flows north about another 10 miles to the Virginia state line before eventually turning south.

Authorities provide an update on June 18, 2021, of the search and rescue operation.

Warning signs

Dan Riverkeeper Steven Pulliam of Stoneville said on Friday that he wonders if recent rains created mud that obscured the portage area along the river where boaters and tubers can exit and walk around the dam’s powerful currents.

“The portage/trail to exit pre-dam is a good ways before the dam on the right,’’ Pulliam said. “It’s possible that recent rains covered some of the steps with mud, making it hard to see, especially if you’re not looking for it.’’

While the dam’s drop-off is only about 8 feet, it “causes a strong current at its base,’’ Pulliam said. “It would be almost impossible for a tube/raft to go over it without flipping.’’

Jeff Brooks, Duke Energy spokesman, said “there is a sign that is visible as you approach the dam that also mentions the availability of a portage.’’

Asked if Duke plans to fortify or make any changes to the area leading to the dam to enhance safety, Brooks said, “Our focus right now is on assisting local emergency management officials with their response.’’

Dangers of exposure

Even in warm weather with water temperatures around 70 degrees, a person who is not wearing protective clothing can quickly lose body heat and develop life-threatening hypothermia, Pulliam said, noting he traveled the Draper Landing area on Thursday, collecting water samples.

After one hour in 70-degree water, a person could lose dexterity. After two to seven hours in water, exhaustion and loss of consciousness could follow, Pulliam said.

Considering the power of water and hazards of rocks along the Dan, Cates encouraged water enthusiasts to take water safety seriously and wear life jackets without fail.

Pulliam agreed.

“The biggest thing to remember is always wear a life jacket. They not only help you float, but give you protection against obstacles," he said. "If you’re new to the river, I’d recommend a life jacket and a helmet. As for bad accidents, this is the worst in my memory.’’

“The river is wild and beautiful, it gives and takes. It’s devastating to hear the news today,’’ Pulliam said on Friday. “I hope we can heal and learn.”

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