Search for vehicle submerged in Mendocino river hampered by water levels

Authorities are investigating the connection of a missing California family and reports that a vehicle similar to theirs fell into the Eel River.|

Authorities are investigating whether a missing Southern California family on vacation is connected with reports of a similar vehicle that Friday tumbled into the storm-swollen Eel River in Mendocino County.

Mendocino County sheriff’s officials working with other first responders will launch a search of a stretch of the river’s south fork once water levels drop and the river flow slows, Mendocino County Sheriff’s Lt. Shannon Barney said Tuesday.

It’s been too dangerous to get divers into the water since Friday’s reported crash. And a storm due Tuesday has kept the river stirred up with mud, hindering the weekend’s air and ground searches.

Witnesses called 911 about 1 p.m. Friday to say they’d seen a newer-model maroon vehicle, possibly a Honda Pilot, crash into the river north of Leggett, CHP Officer William Wunderlich said Tuesday.

The SUV driver had been southbound on Highway 101, which parallels the river. Witnesses said the driver pulled onto a turnout in rainy weather and then went over the side, Wunderlich said.

How many people were in the vehicle wasn’t known.

The vehicle fell a short distance down a steep embankment into the water and disappeared.

“The river was moving rapidly and clarity was pretty bad, pretty muddy,” said Wunderlich, a CHP spokesman for the Humboldt County office, which covers northern Mendocino County.

Subsequently, CHP officers were called about a missing Santa Clarita Valley family traveling in a vehicle of a similar make, model and color of the reported Mendocino County crash vehicle, Wunderlich said.

Whether there is a connection wasn’t known Tuesday. Media reports Tuesday said the family of four - parents and two children - were on a trip from Portland, Oregon to home and were last heard from Thursday. They were due late last week at a relative’s home in San Jose.

A search and recovery effort will need divers and emergency responders trained in swift-water recoveries, Barney said.

“We don’t even know where the car is. With that kind of force in the water it could be way down river,” he said.

The CHP, Sheriff’s Office, Cal Fire and a southern Humboldt County technical rescue team will form a search and recovery effort, Wunderlich said.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412 or On Twitter@rossmannreport.

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