The bodies of three people in the party were located Thursday, the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office said, about 19 hours after the group of nine relatives embarked on a tubing trip the day before. Four people were rescued after clinging to various items.
The ordeal began Wednesday evening when several of the family’s tubes became untethered from one another on the Dan River in Eden, N.C. Some floated over the Duke Energy dam about 7 p.m., according to the sheriff’s office. Emergency officials said they were not alerted to the incident until about 3:15 p.m. Thursday, when they received a 911 call from a Duke Energy employee.
The sheriff’s office tweeted Thursday night that officers had found the bodies of Antonio Ramon, 30; Bridish Crawford, 27; and Sophie Wilson, 14, about three miles from the dam. Ruben Villano, 35; Irene Villano, 18; Eric Villano, 14; and Karlos Villano, 14, were rescued and taken to hospitals for treatment of conditions that were not life-threatening, authorities said.
Debi Villano, the mother of Teresa and Ruben, told The Washington Post late last week that her daughter was pregnant at the time of the accident. She said that the missing woman and her partner, Ramon, were together for 13 years, have three children and moved to Eden to “start over and make their life over.”
“Everything was going great until this,” she said. “It’s just all a big tragedy.”
Two of Debi Villano’s grandchildren, Wilson and Karlos, were visiting from LaPorte, Ind. The group that went tubing expected to be gone for three or four hours Wednesday, Villano said. She said Ramon’s mother called about 2 p.m. Friday to tell her that the group had not returned home.
“I want to know more about what happened to my daughter,” Villano said through tears late last week.
Megan Heitz, Wilson’s mother, wrote on Facebook that “words can’t explain what we feel right now.”
“She was my best friend, a sweetheart and had so much life to live,” she said.
Officials said the drop-off at the dam, about 35 miles north of Greensboro, N.C., was about eight feet. Lt. Kevin Suthard, a spokesman for the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office, described it to ABC Radio as “a pretty steep drop.”
First responders indicated in a 911 dispatch that the survivors rescued were caught in fast-moving water near the dam.
“They’re all caught in the pull,” a rescuer said, according to the dispatch. “If you can come over, we can probably pull them out pretty good, hopefully.”
Villano credited Irene with instructing her family to keep praying as they held on for their lives for hours.
“Irene kept them all going, even when they all wanted to give up,” Villano said of her grandchild, whom she called “a warrior.” “She’s my hero.”
Cates said at a news conference that although it is not unusual for people to go tubing on the Dan River, most leave the water above the dam and walk around it, adding that visitors are discouraged from tubing near it.
Cates also stressed the importance of wearing a safety vest when tubing: “Know where you are, know your surroundings, have your safety vest, your life vest, the inner tube may not always stay inflated, and if the inner tube is not inflated, you need some type of flotation device to secure you as you are coming on down the river.”
He said it was unclear why emergency officials were not alerted sooner.
Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page asked the public to keep the family and emergency personnel in their thoughts.
“Say a prayer for these families because they lost somebody,” Page told reporters Friday. “It’s very tragic.”
Wilson was remembered by her grandmother as “happy and cheery,” a teenager who worked hard washing dishes at a restaurant back home.
“She was just so full of life,” Villano said. “She wasn’t supposed to die.”
In her Facebook post, Heitz shared a GoFundMe page to help return Wilson’s body home to LaPorte for burial.
In a message to her daughter, she wrote, “I hope you know how much we love you.”
A previous version of this report relied on the sheriff's office's spelling of Ruben Villano's name, which was incorrect. It has been corrected.