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UPDATE: State Highway Patrol helicopter back to continue in missing tuber recovery effort

UPDATE: State Highway Patrol helicopter back to continue in missing tuber recovery effort

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EDEN, N.C. — A State Highway Patrol helicopter was back in Rockingham County Monday afternoon to help in the search for a pregnant 35-year-old woman who is still missing after a deadly Wednesday tubing accident that claimed the lives of four of her family members.

Her sister remained hopeful that Teresa Villano might have made it to land after going over an 8-foot-hight dam near Duke Energy's Dan River Steam Station here on Wednesday. "I've always felt like she was on land, not in the water,'' said Angelica Villano. "We need prayers, prayers,'' she said. 

The nine family members who set out tubing on Wednesday afternoon were unaware of the dam, Villano said.

"They didn't know what it was.''  Rather, the group saw rippling current ahead of them that they believed to be rapids, Villano said, relaying reports from four in her family who survived the ordeal.

Antonio Ramon, 30, of Eden, turned to relatives, smiled and called out with excitement as he approached the dam, thinking he would shoot some rapids, relatives said. Ramon died and was recovered from the river late Thursday. 

The family group set out on a tubing trek at around 3:30 p.m. Wednesday on what they planned to be a two-hour trip, Villano and another relative said.

Ultimately, though, all nine floated over the dam, not realizing the current at its base held deadly churning force.

County river experts and emergency workers are calling the accident the worst they can remember. 

The group of survivors spent more time in the water waiting to be rescued than 19 hours, as previously reported by authorities, Villano said.

Some clung to rafts, while her niece, Irene Villano, 18, of Eden, used her "pinky'' finger to cling to a crevice she found in concrete near the dam. "Her finger and her feet are very bruised,'' Villano said.

Irene's father Reuben Villano, 35, of Eden, also a survivor and the twin brother of Teresa Villano, is mourning with his extended family at a local hotel, family members said. Reuben and his immediate family had moved to Eden about six months ago and were just settling in, Angelica Villano said. And his twin had moved to the area just over two months ago.

The physical strain of waiting hours in water for help put stress on Reuben Villano's kidneys, a condition for which he has been treated at a local hospital, Angelica Villano, who is his sister, said.

The City of Eden has provided rooms for the group as they receive family from Indiana and Chicago and deal with planning multiple funerals. 

Sunday brought the sad news that the body of Isiah Crawford, 7, the family's youngest member on the tubing trek, was found in the Dan River near Draper Landing, an access point to the Dan at N.C. 770’s crossing of the river.

Someone spotted the body in the river at about 10:30 a.m. and called 911, according to a news release from the Rockingham County Department of Emergency Services.

Rockingham County Emergency Services Director Rodney Cates said Sunday that boat teams had searched again Sunday from the dam south to Draper Landing and near the Virginia state line.

The Dan River flows north from Draper Landing about 10 miles to the Virginia state line before eventually turning south.

The four surviving family members were rescued Thursday afternoon after a Duke Energy employee saw them stranded near the dam by the utility’s steam station.

The bodies of three other family members, including Ramon, were found later that day about three miles from the dam.

In addition to Rueben and Irene Villano, Rueben's son Eric, 14, of Eden and relative Karlos Villano, 14, of La Porte, Indiana, were rescued by water rescue teams Thursday.

Officials said they recovered the bodies of Ramon, Bridish Crawford, 27, of Eden, and Sophie Wilson, 14, of La Porte, Indiana.

Isiah was Bridish Crawford’s son.

In a Sunday news release, Cates said “the river flow increased overnight with the release of the water from Belews Lake and we knew it was very likely that the victims could surface as a result of the increased river flow.”

Four rescue boats and a helicopter belonging to the Highway Patrol searched the area Friday and fresh crews searched the area Saturday. On Saturday evening Cates said in a release that authorities were suspending the 30-plus hour search for Teresa Villano and Isiah.

“We continue to stand firmly behind the decision made yesterday to suspend search efforts until we had new leads upon which to search,” Cates said in Sunday’s release. “At no point have we, or will we, cease our recovery operations.

The water below the dam, where the current is strongest, is about 3 feet deep, according to Jeff Brooks, a spokesman for Duke Energy.

Dan Riverkeeper Steven Pulliam of Stoneville said that the dam’s drop-off causes a strong current at its base. “It would be almost impossible for a tube/raft to go over it without flipping,’’ Pulliam said last week.

Such low-head dams, often called “drowning machines’’ by boating experts, are notorious for trapping people in the powerful current that churns at their base.

Rescue teams and regional river guides theorize that when the tubers went over the dam, they were pulled under water by the hydraulic force of the base water and drowned.

Brooks said there is a sign for boaters and tubers approaching the dam that mentions the availability of a portage to exit the river before the dam. This allows people to walk around the dam’s powerful currents.

Cates said last week that the four survivors were discovered near the dam, clinging to the tubes in the water and had been there for many hours. They were tired, very fatigued and had been “subjected to the elements for 19 hours,’’ he said.

None were wearing life jackets at the time they were rescued and it was unclear if anyone in the group was, Cates said. The four were treated at a local hospital on Thursday for injuries that were not considered life-threatening.

Considering the power of water and hazards of rocks along the Dan, Cates encouraged water enthusiasts to take water safety seriously and to always wear life jackets.

Pulliam agreed.

“The biggest thing to remember is always wear a life jacket. They not only help you float, but give you protection against obstacles,” he said last week. “If you’re new to the river, I’d recommend a life jacket and a helmet. As for bad accidents, this is the worst in my memory.’’

Susie C. Spear is the editor of Rockingham Now.

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