In a tragic turn of events, the bodies of a Southern California Indian American family – whose maroon Honda Pilot had plunged into the Eel River near Leggett, California as they returned home from a spring break vacation in Oregon – were found and identified April 15 by a multi-agency search and rescue team.
Sandeep Thottapilly, 41, and his nine-year-old daughter Saachi were found inside the submerged vehicle April 15. Two days earlier, the body of Soumya Somanath Thottapilly, 38, was found seven miles north of where the crash occurred. A day later, search and rescue teams found the submerged body of the Thottapillys’ son Siddhant, 12, about six miles downstream of where the crash occurred.
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.
Captain Gregory van Patten, of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office, told India-West the car was fully submerged in water, including the interior of the car. “It's not uncommon for the interior of a car to fill with water when submerged,” he said.
“I could not answer how long the family could have survived in the car. I think it's safe to say that in their circumstance, with the remoteness of the incident, they would not have survived by the time emergency personnel learned of the accident,” said van Patten.
Cindy Bartley, assistant to Chief Deputy Coroner Shannon Barney, told India-West that the bodies of Sandeep, Soumya, and Saachi are currently with the coroner’s office. Autopsies will be performed on all three victims April 17. Toxicology tests – which are standard for any vehicular accident, according to Bartley – will also be performed. Toxicology tests check for alcohol or illicit substances in a corpse.
Van Patten told India-West it would take four to six weeks to get back toxicology reports for Sandeep Thottapilly.
The Thottapillys’ vehicle was completely submerged under heavy water, said Bartley, noting that intense rains had soaked the river, which was moving very swiftly.
The force of the river caused a lot of damage to the vehicle and windows to break, Bartley told India-West, surmising that Soumya Thottapilly was likely shaken loose from the force of the water, and floated away in the rapid river.
The bodies will be released to family members once the autopsies are performed and cleared by the California Highway Patrol, said Bartley.
Seventy members of a search and rescue team had conducted operations over the past week since the Thottapillys went missing. The search consisted of 21 water searchers, which included two jet-ski teams, two boat teams and several Kayak/Carlson board teams, according to a press statement from the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office.
Mid-day April 15, a boating team noticed a gasoline smell emitting from the water approximately a half mile downstream of the reported crash site. The searchers began to probe the water and located a vehicle submerged approximately 4-6 feet beneath the water, said van Patten in the press statement.
“Search divers entered the water and were able to feel what they believed to be a person inside of the vehicle. Visibility was extremely poor and divers noted the vehicle was encased in a large amount of sediment from the river current,” he said.
Recovery efforts continued for several hours. That evening, at approximately 6:30 p.m., rescuers were able to partially remove the Honda Pilot from the river by using a tow truck.
“This provided searchers the ability to conduct a visual inspection of the inside of the vehicle,” van Patten said in the press statement, adding: “Searchers subsequently recovered the bodies of Sandeep Thottapilly and Saachi Thottapilly from inside the vehicle.”
The captain noted that the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office Coroner's Division identified on April 15 the body it had found two days earlier as Soumya Somanath Thottapilly.
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. (See earlier story in India-West here: https://bit.ly/2JHnrdl)
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.
Sandeep Thottapilly’s parents, Babu Subramanium Thottapilly and Rama, are preparing to leave for the U.S., according to a report in the Hindustan Times. Babu Thottapilly had earlier taken to Twitter to plead for help for his son via External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. Responding to his message, Swaraj said: “I am in constant touch with our consulate in San Francisco. They are coordinating with the police. Rest assured. We will spare no effort.”