California Rescue Bid Ends in Death
Feb. 25, 1998
SANTA MARIA, Calif. (AP) _ They never saw the end of the road.
Two California Highway Patrol officers, their car rushing through swirling fog to help a motorist in trouble, dropped off the jagged asphalt and into a churning river of watery mud.
In the middle of the flooded Cuyama River, James Rowan, clinging to the cab of his tractor-trailer, watched the cruiser's flashing rooftop lights grow dim as the cruiser sank and floated away.
About 150 feet downstream, Steven Miller shivered violently, his wool pants and mud-caked shirt melding him with the murky riverbank. He had escaped from his submerged Toyota Camry, floated downstream and latched onto a sand berm before crawling onto the bank. He saw lights in the distance.
Both of the men desperately needed help, but by then their rescuers were beyond rescue.
It would be more than 15 hours before the bodies of Officers Rick Stovall and Britt Irvine, their seat belts still buckled, were pulled from the overturned patrol car.
Two 911 calls came into CHP dispatch around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday. One caller reported a road washout, the other said a big rig was in trouble.
The dispatcher sent Stovall and Irvine to check it out. They headed for Highway 166. The two-lane highway links the central coast town of Santa Maria and its population of 68,000 with the San Joaquin Valley.
Rain _ Santa Maria has had 11.5 inches since Feb. 1 _ had slackened but drifting fog had taken its place. Minutes went by. The dispatcher tried to reach the patrol car. Silence. Worry crept in. It was nearly 4 a.m.
Santa Barbara County sheriff's Deputy Dennis Swack was called to take a look. He knows radio transmission is notoriously poor on the desolate rural route.
``It was slightly foggy. ... The next thing I know, the front end of my car went over the edge. I bailed out the driver's side door real quick and hit the pavement,'' he said. ``I could hear the water rushing down below me.''
His supervisor drove up behind him and aimed his headlights at the car, screaming at Swack to get clear. Below him, maybe 15 feet down, the gushing water had chewed away at the asphalt. He was on a ledge, a gaping hole where 300 feet of road had been yawning in front of him.
Swack could see fog and dim lights on the other side of the wash. ``I was just thinking somebody probably went over the ledge down in the river. But I didn't know that at the time.''
And in the foggy blackness, he couldn't know that four cars already had plunged into the Cuyama _ the CHP cruiser, the semi, the Camry and a pickup truck.
Miller was coming to the end of his 200-mile trip. He looked at his watch. It was 3:10 a.m. The 47-year-old manager of the Robinsons-May department store in Santa Maria had been visiting his old store in Arcadia, just east of Los Angeles. Now he was just 20 minutes from home.
He drove into a fog bank and the road was gone.
``Then my car was airborne, my car started down nose first. I had no idea what happened. I fell for about 2 or 3 seconds. I hit the river, and it broke the driver's side window and immediately filled up the car. I thought to myself, `I'm going to die.'''
Yet he made it out of the passenger window and drifted downstream before clawing his way onto the bank. As he neared solid ground, he thought, ``I'm going to live.''
For more than three hours, he shivered at the river's edge, catching glimpses of light through the fog. ``I could see the lights. I thought to myself they must have seen my car.'' He didn't realize the washout was swallowing other cars. He said he yelled but no one answered.
As filthy as Miller's white shirt was, he took it off and waved it helplessly at helicopters that flew over before dawn. Miller watched the stars give way to the sun. Then rescuers saw him. ____
Several hours later, CHP Commissioner Spike Helmick stood on the riverbank, his heart heavy because he knew by then that two of his friends _ devoted family men and excellent officers _ were dead.
The recovery was painfully difficult, the suction of the muddy slime thwarting efforts to get the bodies from the overturned car. Not far away was the yellow pickup truck; efforts to pull it free with a cable ended when the line snapped.
Both Stovall, 39, and Irvine, 40, had been assigned to the Santa Maria office for nearly eight years, Helmick said. Irvine, a country music fan, had two stepsons and a stepdaughter. Stovall, the son of a retired CHP officer, had a wife and son, 10 and daughter, 12.
Irvine was a member of the Santa Maria Swim Club while Stovall was well known for his church work, fellow officers said. There were no strangers at work _ Helmick said coping with the loss would be tough.
As Miller held his hospital news conference at 3 p.m., Rowan was undergoing surgery for injuries to his scalp, knee, neck, shoulder, chin and face. His mother, Detta, who flew up from Los Angeles, said he was in acute care after the nearly three-hour operation, but his prognosis was good.
``God saved him'' she said.
Her 38-year-old son was returning from a trip delivering merchandise to a department store.
As he sat on the truck's overturned cab, river water sweeping past him, Mrs. Rowan said, her son broke off the truck's side-view mirror and tried to signal whenever headlights approached.
She said he knew the officers who died and cried for them.
When the search was suspended at sundown, all four vehicles were still embedded in the muck. The occupants of the pickup _ if there were any _ were nowhere to be found.
Officers on duty covered their badges with black bands, and a chaplain was called in to help officers and other workers deal with the grief.
``They are friends of mine. They are the heroes in this situation. They were on the way to save somebody's life and lost their lives in the process,'' Swack said, wiping away tears. ``Everyone is grieving but two lives were saved.''
Associated Press Writer Amanda Covarrubias contributed to this report.