Speeding along a curving stretch of Highway 101 in southern Mendocino County Tuesday afternoon, a southbound 20‑year‑old Nevada driver lost control of her car, which veered over a cliff and cartwheeled 300 feet down into the Russian River.
Cold water rushed in and nearly submerged the sedan. The two women inside had just enough air and room to escape the car.
They swam to shore and crawled up the steep cliff to a highway pull‑out near Frog Woman Rock to get help. The spot is a well‑known Russian River landmark south of Hopland and the scene of previous serious crashes.
“Both girls were really scared and cold and injured,” said Hopland Fire Chief Mitch Franklin, the first to arrive at the 3:45 p.m. crash. “They were soaked.”
Paramedics gave medical aid and treated the two for hypothermia. Passenger Aidan Harris, 21, was flown by medical helicopter to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, followed by driver Makaela Dodes, 20, who was taken by ambulance. Both Las Vegas residents were treated and released, according to a hospital spokeswoman Wednesday.
It was the same stretch of highway where firefighters and CHP officers earlier this month investigated a partial head‑on crash during a brief downpour that injured at least one person, fire officials said.
And it was the same stretch of highway where another southbound crash similar to Tuesday’s occurred in June 2016 — the driver lost control and a car carrying two people veered over the edge, the car flipping as it fell before landing on its wheels in the river. Despite being rescued from the car by nearby swimmers, a 6-year-old girl died. Her mother was trapped in the wreckage and seriously injured.
In Tuesday’s incident, the two women told firefighters they were on their way from Washington state to Las Vegas. Dodes was driving.
The CHP said she was going about 70 mph in the left lane of the four-lane divided highway when she lost control. The Lexus swerved into the slow lane and then shot out over the edge.
The Lexus’ front and back ends struck the cliff as it tumbled. The two wore seat belts but several loose items flew out as the car flipped. Firefighters found a debris field of belongings strewn throughout the area including a backpack 100 yards away on the other side of the river, Assistant Hopland Fire Chief Ron Roysum said.
Where the car landed — on a submerged sandbar or rocks — played a key role in their survival, officials said.
“The sandbar held them up just enough. They had air space,” Roysum said.
The driver was able to open her door and helped her friend out. They swam to shore and climbed up, cut, bruised and freezing.
When a tow truck arrived, firefighters realized how close the two women came to a much worse situation because just feet from where the car landed, the river was deeper.
“When we secured it and started dragging it, it completely went under water,” Franklin said.
Roysum called the positive ending “an absolute miracle.”
“They weren’t killed in the event and then the car was 90 percent submerged,” he said. “To go through a horrible wreck like that and end up in the water, my hat’s off to the girls for their self‑preservation and wherewithal to get themselves out.”
Cal Fire findings on 12 Northern California wildfires
Those referred to the District Attorney indicate Cal Fire determined PG&E was in violation of state code.
Redwood fire (Mendocino County): 543 structures destroyed, 9 deaths, 36,523 acres burned. The fires started in two locations when trees or tree parts fell onto PG&E power lines.
Nuns, Norrbom, Adobe, Partrick & Pythian fires (Sonoma and Napa counties): 1,355 structures destroyed; 3 deaths, 56,556 acres burned (Sonoma and Napa counties); all but Nuns fire referred to District Attorney.
• Nuns: Broken top of a tree crashed into powerlines.
• Norrbom: Tree fell onto powerlines.
• Adobe: Tree fell into PG&E powerline.
• Partrick: Oak tree fell into PG&E powerlines.
• Pythian: The fire started with a downed powerline caused after PG&E tried to re-energize the line.
Atlas fire (Napa County): 783 structures burned, 51,624 acres burned, 6 deaths; referred to the District Attorney.
Sulphur fire (Lake County): 2,207 acres, 162 structures destroyed; referred to the District Attorney. Fire ignited when a PG&E power pole failed, causing power lines and equipment to contact the ground.
Pocket fire (Sonoma County): 6 structures destroyed, 17,357 acres burned; referred to the District Attorney.
37 fire (Sonoma County): 3 structures destroyed, 1,660 acres burned (Sonoma County). PG&E distribution lines started an electrical fire.
Blue fire (Humboldt County): 20 acres burned; referred to the District Attorney. A PG&E powerline conductor separated from a connector, causing the conductor to fall to the ground and start a fire.
Cherokee fire (Butte County): 6 structures destroyed, 8,417 acres burned. Fire started when tree limbs made contact with PG&E powerlines.
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here