Man dies after van plunges into Blackfoot River

BONNER - A 47-year-old Great Falls man, trapped in his wheelchair inside a van that had lodged on a boulder in the middle of the Blackfoot River on Monday, died later at St. Patrick Hospital despite efforts to resuscitate him at the scene.

The van was westbound on Highway 200 about

6 1/2 miles northeast of Bonner when it crossed the oncoming traffic lane, careened down an embankment and went into the river about 400 yards from Angevine Park about 3 p.m., according to investigating officers

There were no skid marks on the highway, and it is not known if the driver, William Carl Jones, suffered a medical problem which caused the accident or may have fallen asleep, said Officer Tim Monzon of the Montana Highway Patrol. The victim was the only occupant of the van.

David Crowder, a tractor-trailer driver from Tacoma, Wash., said he saw the van shortly after it went down the bank and into the river.

He ran down the bank screaming at the driver as the white three-door van was swept down the river until lodging on a boulder, some 200 yards from where it left the highway.

"He kept trying to pull himself up with his (right) arm," Crowder said.

When fire department personnel and other medical crews arrived at the partially submerged van about 3:15 p.m., the man was continually waving his left arm but was slumped away from the driver's door, said Don Whalen of Missoula Emergency Services.

Search and Rescue crews with boats were requested immediately, but there was some confusion for emergency personnel about the site. They initially were told the accident was at Marco Flats, about four miles downstream from where the van rested in the river.

The 40-degree water temperature and swift current kept rescuers at bay for a time, said Sgt. Willis Hintz of the Missoula County Sheriff's Department.

Tom Zeigler of the Missoula Rural Fire Department, who teaches swift-water rescue techniques, arrived about 20 minutes after the wreck, donned cold-water gear, swam to the van, which was facing upstream, and broke out a side window to gain entry.

The man was in cardiac arrest when Zeigler entered the vehicle, said Whalen. Zeigler spent about a half-hour giving medical attention and trying to free the victim from the wheelchair.

Cindy Adams, a kayaker who also stopped to assist, said the swift current kept sweeping her away from the stranded vehicle.

"I really didn't get to help much," she said. "I wish I could have done more."

John Spierling, a diver with the Missoula County Search and Rescue unit, arrived and roped his way to the vehicle, where he and Zeigler lifted the victim out a window. About 3:55 p.m., Spierling accompanied the man on a rope to the riverbank where emergency crews waited.

The victim was given CPR in the ambulance while being rushed to the hospital.

Efforts at the emergency room to raise the victim's body temperature were unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead about 8:15 p.m.

The body was taken to the state Crime Lab in Missoula where an autopsy will be performed to determine the cause of death.

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