Authorities Call Off Hunt for Canal Crash Victims

By: Juliana Barbassa AP
By: Juliana Barbassa AP

WESTLEY, Calif. (AP) - Law enforcement authorities called off the search for two victims still missing after two vehicles plunged into an irrigation canal in California's Central Valley.

California Highway Patrol Officer Mayolo Banuelos said divers spent at least six hours hunting for the bodies late Tuesday before the canal's swift, murky waters forced them to abandon the recovery effort.

Five bodies were pulled from the Delta-Mendota Canal on Tuesday following the afternoon crash - four from a sport utility vehicle and one from a septic truck.

On Wednesday, the Stanislaus County Coroner identified the dead as Luis Perez, 45; Eulalia Garcia, 34; Isaac Tapia, 16; Adan Martinez, 22; and Elizar Cruz, 19. Perez, who was driving the septic truck, was from Merced, and the others lived in Lodi.

Banuelos said family members believed two others were also riding in the Ford Explorer.

"We'll just have to wait and see if the bodies will surface on their own," he said. "They've exhausted all means. The water current is real strong. The divers spent a lot of hours down there."

Investigators still were working to determine the cause of the crash but say both drivers and the Explorer's right front passenger were all wearing seat belts.

Authorities believe six of the victims were returning home to Lodi after working in a peach orchard south of Westley in Stanislaus County, based on reports from family and witnesses.

Divers removed Perez's body from inside the septic truck late in the afternoon, Banuelos said. Initial reports suggested that two people had been in the truck, but investigators now believe there was only one.

The vehicles careened into the fast-moving waters of the canal about 15 miles southwest of Modesto after the truck slammed into the SUV at 12:21 p.m. Tuesday, according to the CHP.

Distraught relatives and friends of the crash victims lined the canal banks Tuesday afternoon, sobbing as divers probed its depths.

"When we got the call I thought it could have been any of us there with them," said Zenon Vargas, 34, who said he shares a home in Lodi with the SUV's driver, Eulalia Garcia. "It's been so many hours. It's so frustrating."

The canal runs about 17 feet deep and 100 feet wide in the area where the crash occurred, said Pete Lucero, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the 117-mile canal that funnels water from a Tracy pumping plant to the western San Joaquin Valley.

United Site Services Inc., which owns the septic truck, said the driver had been cleaning out portable toilets in a nearby orchard before the crash, said Paige Dawson, a spokeswoman for the Westborough, Mass.-based company.

The truck was carrying non-toxic, biodegradable material, and there was no evidence the contents of the truck's tank had spilled into the canal, Dawson said.

Belen Martinez, 47, who worked in the same crew as Garcia, said she received a call that her friend, brother-in-law and nephew were involved in the wreck.

"They never had a chance to get home," said Martinez, who is originally from the Mexican state of Guerrero, but now lives in Lodi. "We're just sitting here hoping and waiting."
Associated Press Writers Garance Burke and Tracie Cone in
Fresno, and Terence Chea and Marcus Wohlsen in San Francisco,
contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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