Authorities say speed and alcohol not factors in accident
The 47-year-old Great Falls man who inexplicably drove off Highway 200 near Angevine Park northeast of Bonner on Monday afternoon died of hypothermia, authorities said Tuesday.
William Carl Jones, who was a quadraplegic, was driving a wheelchair-accessible van en route to Missoula about 3 p.m. Monday.
In the middle of a mild "S" curve about 6 1/2 miles from Bonner just before 3 p.m., his van crossed the oncoming traffic lane and bounced down an embankment, ending up in the middle of the Blackfoot River, according to Officer Tim Monzon of the Montana Highway Patrol.
Speed and alcohol were not factors in the wreck and there were no skid marks where the van left the roadway, authorities said.
David Crowder, a tractor-trailer driver from Tacoma, Wash., didn't see the Jones vehicle leave the road, but seconds after impact his girlfriend noticed the rig, which landed in the water on its wheels but pointing upstream.
Crowder said he ran down the riverbank imploring the struggling driver to hold still, because every time Jones moved, the nose of the van dipped, taking in more water.
The partially submerged vehicle was swept about 200 yards downstream before it high-centered on a boulder. Pools around the vehicle were as deep as 10 feet, according to Sgt. Willis Hintz of the Missoula County Sheriff's Department.
Crowder's girlfriend tried to flag down help from passing motorists, but several went by until a driver with a cellular telephone stopped and called 9-1-1 at 2:57 p.m., said a distraught Crowder.
Cindy Adams, a passing kayaker, said she tried to help but the current swept her away from the vehicle.
Tom Zeigler of the Missoula Rural Fire Department, who arrived with cold-water gear, worked tirelessly but couldn't free Jones from his wheelchair and lift him out a side window until John Spierling, a Missoula Search and Rescue diver, swam to the vehicle to help.
That wasn't until 3:55 p.m. Four minutes later Jones, with Spierling's assistance, was roped to waiting emergency crews on the river bank.
Because of his medical condition - Jones did not have the use of his legs or arms - he was unable to help with his rescue and was in the approximately 40-degree water for about an hour.
Jones' body temperature had fallen to the mid-70s by the time he arrived at St. Patrick Hospital, according to Hintz. His heart rate was dangerously low from the hypothermia and rescuers at the scene said he was in cardiac arrest, probably caused by the low heart rate, inside the vehicle.
Chief Deputy County Coroner Jerry Crego of the Missoula County Sheriff's Department said a person can only survive in such cold water for 20 to 30 minutes.
Efforts to raise Jones' body temperature were unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead at 8:15 p.m.