Two sisters die after pickup plunges into Russian River near Jenner

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How to help

A GoFundMe account has been set up to help the Markus family. To donate, go here.

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.

How to help

A GoFundMe account has been set up to help the Markus family. To donate, go here.

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!’ ”

A passing commercial truck driver pulled over and jumped into the river. Identified by the CHP as Robert Blink of Antelope, he helped Markus to shore. He was joined by Tim Murphy, a supervising state parks lifeguard. Murphy, wearing a wetsuit and aided by fins, and Blink, dove again and again down to the truck.

A local man only identified by officials as Royce also jumped in, shirtless and swimming in blue jeans. Three deputies pulled up, tore off their gear belts, guns, radios and boots and jumped into the river, also trying to reach the truck.

With fins Murphy could get to the truck, but without a weight belt it was impossible to stay down, he said. And visibility was only a few feet, making the task harder.

Those in the water desperately continued to dive, while Markus watched from the shore.

“It was frantic,” Murphy said. “It was horrible. She was calling them by name.”

Scott Kwon, also a state parks lifeguard, was up north in Salt Point State Park when he heard the emergency call. It took him about 25 minutes to get to the crash site. Wearing full diving gear, Kwon swam down to the truck and with visibility at 2 feet he had to feel his way around the truck’s cab.

“I crawled into the vehicle through the driver’s side window and attempted to look for the children,” Kwon said.

He said the girls were no longer belted into their booster seats but were inside. He brought them to the surface, one by one.

Awaiting rescuers carried the bodies up to the roadway where paramedics tried to revive the girls.

Their distraught mother, wrapped in a towel, stayed at the scene for hours, talking to officials and sitting with a law enforcement chaplain and parks Officer Gibbs.

“I tried to get them out, I tried to get them out,” the mother could be heard yelling at one point.

The Ford F-250 remained in the water until a big rig tow pulled it out about 1 p.m. Highway 1 was closed in both directions for several hours.

Jenner sits at the mouth of the Russian River and that area of the coast highway runs along the widening river as it enters the sea. There is no guardrail and a dirt shoulder quickly drops off to the water. In 2010, a 62-year-old Agoura Hills woman drove into the river at the same point from Jenner, apparently missing the left curve leaving town. Phyllis Bin’s vehicle and body weren’t found for two days in the rain-swollen river.

“There’s going to be a huge effort from the community to beg for a barrier,” said Michelle Irwin, who spoke with residents as she worked behind the counter at the Jenner gift shop.

Irwin said residents always feel badly for people who crash in the area. But this time it involved their own.

“It’s part of our own little fabric of our community,” Irwin said.

Indicating the photo of the young sisters on the store’s counter, she said residents need to take the photo to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors “so that not one more person can drive off that edge.”

The deaths hit many of the veteran first responders hard. At times, responders hid their emotions behind sunglasses or struggled to stop quivering lips and trembling voices. Some referenced their own young children.

Authorities quickly organized debriefings for those involved in the attempted rescue and crash as a way to discuss and share their emotions.

“They did everything they could,” CHP Officer Quintin Shawk said of the rescue efforts. “They worked as fast as they could. We’re all upset.”

Staff Writer Julie Johnson contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@rossmannreport.

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