MIAMI, Okla. — Eight workers from southwest Missouri awoke before dawn and piled into an SUV, preparing to brave sub-zero temperatures and icy roads for the 40-mile commute to the Oklahoma farm where they were mushroom harvesters.
As they neared their destination, the red Chevrolet Avalanche veered off a snowy highway bridge, launched off an angled, plowed through a snowdrift and over the guardrail and plummeted 61 feet into a shallow icy river. Three died and the five others suffered from hypothermia and trauma in waist-deep water of the Spring River below the Interstate 44 bridge.
"The ground temperature was 11 degrees below zero, so it would take only a second to become hypothermic in this water and ice," said Oklahoma Highway Patrol Lt. George Brown. "This is a very traumatic crash."
Two of the victims, driver Leonor Alcano, 31, and front-seat passenger Irma Garcia, 37, died of hypothermia after being pinned in the SUV, according to a Highway Patrol report. The six others climbed atop the vehicle. One of the initial survivors, Douglas Monzon, 22, fell into the water while reaching for a rope dangled by would-be rescuers and died later at a hospital.
All the victims were from Carthage, Mo., and worked at a mushroom farm east of Miami, Okla.
"It's just devastating," said Scott Engelbrecht, who runs the family-owned company with his brother. "We're all pretty close. It's tough."
Engelbrecht said the operation was shuttered Wednesday because of the weather and reopened Thursday. The 45 or so workers heard the news about their colleagues shortly after 9 a.m., he said.
"Locally the roads were in fairly decent shape," Engelbrecht said, his voice filling with emotion. "As an owner, you try to make the right decision."
The road had been impassable less than nine hours earlier after a blizzard that barreled through Oklahoma on Tuesday dumped more than 20 inches of snow, sleet and ice.
The patrol report indicated Alcano was driving too fast given the road's conditions.
Interstate 44 — also known as the Will Rogers Turnpike — was shut down Tuesday and much of Wednesday because of a blizzard that stretched from the Southwest to New England. Even with the roads opened, highway officials urged caution as temperatures at 10 below and colder kept them frozen.
"If people look at the conditions they're driving in, slow down and pay attention and realize they're driving in very hazardous conditions, they're going to make it," said Jack Damrill, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority in Oklahoma City.
The plowed snow banks on the bridge formed an almost perfect 45-degree angle. However, Damrill dismissed any suggestion that the road should not have been reopened.
"Yes, there's snow on the sides," he said. "We clear lanes of travel first. There's nowhere for that snow to go. We push everything to the side first to get the lanes open."
Television footage showed the large vehicle resting upright and partially submerged in the Spring River.
Brown said motorists who witnessed the accident said they peered over the side of the bridge and spotted the six people outside the truck in the icy water and two others inside the vehicle.
"The rescue teams got a small boat, hoisted it down in the water and started the recovery," Brown said.
Grady Weston, assistant chief of the Newton County (Mo.) Rescue and Recovery squad, said the SUV had broken through ice and was half-submerged when his crews arrived. "Three of us waded out into the river . . . and helped get the last three or four out," Weston said.
Three survivors were at the St. John's Regional Medical Center in Joplin, according to David Morris, the hospital's director of marketing. The Freeman Health Center at Joplin also received three people, including Monzon. The Highway Patrol said all the survivors — four men and a woman — were in critical condition with hypothermia, and that all but the woman suffered trauma to their arms and legs.