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4 Bodies Retrieved After Car's Plunge

June 08, 2003|Eric Bailey and Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writers

JACKSON, Calif. — Using an inflatable catamaran, a heavy-lift helicopter and rope lines strung across fast-moving Mokelumne River, rescuers labored for almost six hours Saturday to recover the bodies of a woman and three young children, one day after the car in which they were riding swerved off a remote road and fell into the water.

The driver and another passenger managed to escape. But because authorities believe that he was speeding at the time of the accident, driver Joshua Julin, 20, was arrested on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter in the deaths of his two children, Mariah, 3, and Andrew, 1; his girlfriend, Katie Corbett, 23; and her daughter, Kiara, 2, said California Highway Patrol Sgt. Ken Mazzanti.

Julin was driving a 1988 Toyota Corolla along Electra Road, a narrow, winding stretch of road high above the banks of the Mokelumne River, about 45 miles southeast of Sacramento, near California Highway 49.

CHP investigators believe the car was traveling about 45 mph -- about 30 mph faster than recommended -- when a pickup truck approached from the opposite direction, Mazzanti said. The car swerved right and fell down a steep embankment, tumbling 200 feet before plunging into the Mokelumne River at 4:49 p.m. Friday.

Authorities said there are some inconsistencies in the accounts of the accident given by Julin and his brother, Matthew, 22, the other passenger in the car. But apparently the two men were thrown out of the car when it hit the water and watched helplessly as the vehicle, propelled by fast-moving waters, floated about half a mile downstream, passing through class-2 rapids and under a bridge before becoming wedged in a pile of rocks in the middle of the river, authorities said.

About 10 minutes after the car left the road, a CHP helicopter spotted it trapped in the river, Mazzanti said. Water cascaded around the car as if it were a large boulder in the river's path. Uncharacteristically heavy spring storms have meant a sizable snowmelt -- and heavy runoff -- for the Mokelumne, which is about 150 feet wide and 5 to 6 feet deep. In addition, the river water is about 52 degrees, authorities said.

In less than an hour, a white-water rescue team had assembled along the pine- and oak-shrouded banks of the roaring river, said Amador County Sheriff's Capt. Glenn Humphries. But for that rescue team, and the dozens of people gathered by the river's edge, the evening would bring only frustration.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which operates a hydroelectric plant about four miles upriver from the accident site, cut the flow on some dams to reduce the volume of water coming downstream. But officials were unable to get the water level low enough for rescuers to free the car or save the people inside.

Late Friday, rescuers strung ropes across the river and navigated a raft close enough to the car to crack open a side window with an oar. Inside, Humphries said, they saw the body of a woman in the front passenger seat. She appeared to be dead.

"When we first saw it, we thought there might be an air pocket," said Mike Flores of Amador County Search and Rescue. "Then we got out there and realized there was none."

With that knowledge, as darkness fell, authorities decided to call off the rescue and postpone recovery efforts until Saturday, when PG&E again reduced the water level on the river. This time, the water level sank by about a foot, and by 11 a.m. rescuers began easing an inflatable catamaran into position in the water.

The recovery effort Saturday was dangerous for the trio of search-and-rescue workers in the catamaran. One man leaned out of the boat toward the nearby car while his colleagues held on to his belt to keep him from falling into the foaming water, which swirled around them.

"Water is a big force," Flores said. "We're fighting Mother Nature. We did the best we could."

It took three hours to retrieve and move to shore the lifeless bodies of two children, both of whom appeared to have been fastened into car seats.

Rescuers tried multiple times, without success, to remove Corbett's body from the car until finally, as the river water began rising again, the sheriff's office called for a heavy-lift helicopter to pull the car out of the river altogether.

"About 2, we realized we're losing daylight," said Amador County sheriff's incident commander Patrick Weart. "Someone made a crack about a helicopter, and I ran with it."

A specially equipped single-rotor helicopter, used to lift downed trees and heavy equipment for PG&E, easily lifted the car free of the boulders and moved it about 50 feet onto a nearby riverbank.

While the helicopter circled overhead, authorities found Corbett's body inside the car. The body of the third child was recovered downstream.

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