A tragic break in the search for an Indian American family from Southern California, who went missing seven days ago as they returned home from a spring break vacation in Oregon, occurred April 12, as the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office announced it had found items believed to belong to the family.
An April 12 press statement from the Mendocino County Sheriff’s office lists Sandeep Thottapilly, 41; Soumya Thottapilly, 38; Siddhant Thottapilly, 12; and Saachi Thottapilly, 9, as victims in the search and rescue operation which began April 6. The family was driving a maroon Honda Pilot.
The search and rescue operations involved multiple agencies, but were unsuccessful in extricating the vehicle from the rain-soaked Eel River, near Leggett, Calif. A witness told police April 6 that he had seen a vehicle slide over the steep embankment over the river on the afternoon of April 6 (see earlier India-West story here).
High water levels have thwarted search and rescue operations. But on April 10 and 11, Swift Water Rescue Teams used a technique called "probing,” using a long pole being probed underwater to see if the vehicle or anything metallic could be located.
The teams accessed the river in inflatable boats and on River Boards, a small floatation device designed to allow full access under overhanging trees or tight areas not accessible by boat. They managed to cover 12 miles in two days.
“The teams were unsuccessful in locating the vehicle or any occupants from the vehicle. They were able to locate numerous items that appeared to have come from a vehicle body and interior,” reported Mendocino County Sheriff Office Lt. Sharon Barney April 12. “Some of these items were consistent with a Honda vehicle. Also located were various personal items that were consistent with a family traveling on vacation.”
“Several items have been positively identified, by family members, as belonging to the Thottapilly family. These items were of a personal nature and will not be described further at this time, but it does confirm the fact the vehicle that was seen going into the river was that of the Thottapilly family,” reported Barney.
The Thottapillys last made contact on April 5 with family members in San Jose, Calif., to let them know they would visit the following day on their way back to their home in Santa Clarita, Calif.
When the Thottapillys had not shown up on the afternoon of April 8, Soumya’s relatives called the San Jose Police Department, Officer Gina Teeporten told India-West. The family member told police he had not heard from the Thottapillys since April 6, which was unusual for the family.
Search crews from multiple local law enforcement agencies have been trying to retrieve the vehicle, including the Southern Humboldt Technical Rescue; the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office Boat Team; the California Highway Patrol Helicopter based in Redding, California; the Piercy Fire Department; the Leggett Valley Fire Department; the Swift Water Component Teams; the Little Lake Fire Department, the Ukiah Valley Fire Department, and the Hopland Fire Department.
The California Highway Patrol reported April 6 that a witness had seen a vehicle go over the side of a steep embankment on US-101, south of Dora Creek in Northern Mendocino County. The vehicle has been submerged in the water ever since, reported the CHP.
Meanwhile, Sandeep Thottapilly’s father, Babu Subramaniam Thottapilly, who lives in Surat, Gujarat, has taken to Twitter to plead for help from Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. “Respected Sushma Swaraj ji, I am a senior citizen and resident of Surat, Gujarat. My son Sandeep Thottapilly is residing in California, USA. He and his family are reported missing since last Thursday,” said Thottapilly in an April 9 tweet.
“Would request your good office to take up this matter with concerned authorities in USA and help find my son and his family as soon as possible,” said the tweet from Thottapilly.
"I am in constant touch with our Consulate in San Francisco. They are coordinating with the Police. Rest assured. We will spare no effort," Swaraj tweeted April 11.
The elder Thottapilly told the Times of India: "Before they drove into a national park area, my daughter-in-law called up a relative in the U.S. to say perhaps they would be no mobile connectivity inside the area but would call up in half an hour's time. But from then, neither did they call nor could they be contacted by some of our family members in the U.S.”
Sandeep’s brother Sachin, who has come from Mississauga, Ontario in Canada to help search for the family, could not be reached for comment. Soumya’s family in San Jose could not be located.
The Indian American community has also joined the search. World Malayalee Federation general secretary vice-chairperson Annie in New York posted a 'Community Action Call' on Twitter asking people to help find the missing family.
A poster is also in circulation over social media asking anyone with information about the incident to call police or (813) 616-3091.
Sandeep Thottapilly is a vice president at Union Bank in Los Angeles, Calif.