Two sisters die after pickup plunges into Russian River near Jenner
JENNER - The tiny coastal village of Jenner lost its two children Tuesday morning.
Sisters Kaitlyn, 6, and Hailey, 4, had just left their hillside Jenner home with their mother, Sarah Markus, for the second day of school in Monte Rio, where big sister, just a month shy of her seventh birthday, was in second grade, little sister in preschool and mom in her week-old teacher's aide job.
Roads were wet with drizzle from heavy fog. Within a minute of leaving home about 8:30 a.m. Markus lost control of the family pickup on Highway 1 and veered off, plunging about 40 feet down a steep embankment into the murky Russian River.
Markus, 32, reached back for her children buckled in the back seat. As the truck quickly sank, she kicked out her side window and swam to the surface, screaming for help.
Within minutes a state parks lifeguard, a truck driver, a Jenner man and three sheriff's deputies were in the water, diving repeatedly, frantically, to reach the girls as their hysterical mother called their names from the highway above.
It was too late.
About 30 minutes later, the girls' bodies were found inside the submerged pickup, about 15 to 20 feet below the surface. A state parks lifeguard in diving gear pulled them from the truck's cab.
Jenner's population sign says it has 107 residents, but some suspect it's more like 85. In the picturesque community of longtime residents and retirees, the two little girls were bright spots of vibrancy.
Later Tuesday morning someone in town made copies of a photo of the sisters and distributed the happy, smiling picture around Jenner, where businesses displayed it prominently. Handwritten in blue above the photo was: “Always in our Hearts!!! Angels.”
“Really, they were our only children in town,” said Cal Ares, president of the Jenner Community Center.
“Two little blondies who loved to run around and play,” said Ares' wife, Char Ares.
Stunned at the news, the couple and others gathered at Jenner Sea Gifts and Wines shop, within view of where CHP officers and emergency responders worked in the crash's aftermath. Residents consoled each other, alternating from grief to shock to a desire for action. There was talk of fundraising, perhaps a candlelight vigil and a push for a guardrail to separate that stretch of highway from the river below.
“We're going to make a circle around the family,” Cal Ares said.
When Mary Cabot arrived, the group went outside to hug her, knowing she lives next door to the Markus family and is a longtime friend of the girls' grandmother.
“They were swinging on the swing yesterday,” said a disbelieving Cabot. “Something like this should never happen. They were just beautiful little children.”
It happened as the family was starting its school day.
Ross Bickford, superintendent of the Monte Rio Union School District, said it has one school with about 100 students, and classes through the eighth grade.
He was driving to Santa Rosa when he received a phone call from Principal Nathan Meyers and was informed of the crash.
Earlier Tuesday, Markus already had driven her stepson to El Molino High School in Forestville and returned home to drive her daughters the nine miles to Monte Rio for school, according to the CHP.
The first morning bell rings at 8:25 a.m. The crash happened about 8:30 a.m. on the first curve heading out of town. A witness told CHP officers the woman didn't appear to be speeding, traveling about 35 mph.
Markus told officers the truck began to slide on the wet road. She apparently responded by overcorrecting, causing the pickup to fishtail and run off the road, CHP Officer Jon Sloat said.
The truck plummeted down a 40-foot embankment, hit the water and quickly disappeared below the surface.
There were no 911 calls; cell service is poor in Jenner. State parks Officer Shana Gibbs was in town when a Spanish-speaking woman pulled over near her and with hand signals and the word “accident” conveyed what happened.
Another witness then flagged Gibbs, and the officer alerted law enforcement and emergency responders to a vehicle in the river with possibly two adults and two children trapped inside. When the driver surfaced the report changed to two children trapped below the surface.
State parks lifeguards, deputies, Monte Rio, Bodega Bay, Russian River and Cal Fire firefighters, two ambulances, several CHP officers and U.S. Coast Guard officers rushed to the call.
Just after it happened, Jenner resident Harry Kenney and his wife, who were bird-watching along the river, noticed huge ripples disturbing the calm river surface.
“I saw bubbles come up and a woman popped up shortly afterward,” Kenney said. “She was just screaming in the water, ‘My babies!'?”