MERRILLVILLE, Indiana — Surviving members of a LaPorte family described Thursday how they suddenly found themselves being carried over a low-head dam, which their attorney called a "drowning machine," while tubing in June on the Dan River near Eden.
Members of the Villano family set out to enjoy a summer day on the river in Rockingham County and had no idea the low-head dam existed before it claimed the lives of five of their family members, one of whom was six months pregnant, attorney Kenneth J. Allen said.
Allen stood alongside surviving family members at his Merrillville, Indiana, office as they announced a lawsuit against Duke Energy Carolinas LLC, the owner and operator of the low-head dam.
The Villano family filed the lawsuit to hold Duke Energy accountable and encourage owners of other low-head dams across the U.S. to remove them, mitigate the danger or at least give rivers users adequate warning of the hidden danger ahead, Allen said.
"The goal is to prevent other recreational users of our streams and rivers from facing the same disastrous consequences that the Villano family has suffered,” Allen said.
Duke Energy responded early Friday in a prepared statement, offering condolences for the Villano family.
“Our hearts go out to those involved in the tragic accident on the Dan River," the Charlotte-based utility said in the statement. "The safety of the public and our employees is our top priority, and we work closely with local communities, organizations and government agencies to promote safe and responsible recreational activities near our facilities. We will respond to the lawsuit in detail in a future legal filing.”
The June tubing accident, described as one of the worst accidents in Rockingham County history, left five people dead.
Teresa Villano, 35, and husband Antonio Roman, 30, both of LaPorte, Indiana; Bridish Crawford, 27, her son Isaiah Crawford, 7, both of Durham County; and cousin Sophie Wilson, 14, of LaPorte, Indiana, were killed, the family said.
Ruben Villano, 35, Bridish Crawford's partner, his children, Irene Villano, 18, and Eric Villano, 14; and cousin Karlos Villano, 14, of LaPorte, were able to cling to the dam for 11 hours before rescuers came to their aid.
Irene Villano said she was able to gain a hold on the dam with a pinkie finger and then her feet, and other family members held onto her.
She watched the sun set and rise again before she and her family members were rescued, Allen said.
“The Villano family had no idea, nor does most of the public at large, that low-head dams are treacherous," he said. "These dams are known as 'drowning machines' by those who own or operate them," said Allen, whose Allen Law Group represents the family along with North Carolina law firm Edwards Kirby.
Allen used photos to show how placid a river can look beyond a low-head dam to someone on a tube or boat.
Some estimates put the number of low-head dams in North Carolina at more than 1,000, but no official inventory exists, Allen said.
The attorney said hundreds have died as a result of encounters with low-head dams, but many remain unguarded.