MIAMI, Oklahoma - Authorities say a third person has died after the SUV they were in veered off of an Oklahoma highway bridge and plummeted more than 80 feet into an icy river.
As many as eight people were in the Chevrolet Avalanche when it ran off Interstate 44 near Miami (My-am-uh), Okla. Thursday morning.
Highway Patrol Lt. George Brown says the truck went off the side of the bridge and into the ice-covered Spring River. The air temperature was minus-11 degrees at the time of the crash.
Road crews had closed the road after a blizzard Tuesday dumped more than 20 inches of snow, sleet and ice. Plow operators opened the westbound lanes of the roadway late Wednesday night.
The accident happened at about 6:30 a.m., less than nine hours after one of two westbound lanes of Interstate 44 was reopened for traffic. The highway was rendered impassable Tuesday night by the powerful blizzard that barreled through Oklahoma and much of the nation, and hundreds of stranded motorists had to be helped to safety.
It was not immediately clear how many people died in the crash. Ottawa County Sheriff Terry Durborow said three people died, but the Oklahoma Highway Patrol said only two died and the state Medical Examiner's office said it had received only two bodies from the crash. The discrepancy could not immediately be resolved.
Television footage showed the large vehicle resting upright and partially submerged in the Spring River. A rescuer said the water there was waist-deep.
"This is a fall of 80 feet or better ... that alone is a very dangerous type of crash. This is a very traumatic crash," said Lt. George Brown, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Highway Department.
More than 20 inches of snow had fallen in the area and the air temperature Thursday morning was minus-11 degrees, making the rescue operation difficult.
Motorists who witnessed the accident said they peered over the side of the bridge and spotted six people outside of the truck in the icy water and two others inside the vehicle, Brown said.
"The rescue teams got a small boat, hoisted it down in the water and started the recovery," Brown said. "The ground temperature was 11 degrees below zero, so it would take second to become hypothermic in this water and ice."
Grady Weston, the 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. "I couldn't tell you how many people there were."
Authorities declined to release the victims' names or say where they live. A decal reading "Enrique" was emblazoned on the top of the truck's windshield.
The plows that cleared the four-lane highway's outside lanes pushed the snow up against the outside guardrails, and that snow acted as a ramp when the SUV hit it, Durborow said.
"She hit that and just went airborne," Durborow said. "I don't know if she lost control of her vehicle or not. She just jumped the guard rail off that bridge."
"It's probably the worst conditions I've seen, and I've lived here all my life," Durborow said.
Three survivors were listed in serious condition at the St. John's Regional Medical Center in Joplin, according to David Morris, the hospital's director of marketing. It was not immediately clear where other survivors may have been treated.
Brown declined to speculate about whether the highway may have been re-opened prematurely, given the persisting dangerous conditions.