A diver was lowered under water from a gigantic crane twice Tuesday afternoon, looking for what sonar had indicated was a car, apparently on its side, in the still-swollen South Platte River.
During the next two and a half hours, several searchers also probed that part of the river with long poles, often working from a diving cage at the end of the crane’s boom as well as from boats in the water, but it wasn’t until 5:45 p.m. that the car was located.
Sheriff Jerome Kramer said the crew was able to put the diver’s cage on top of the vehicle, which is beneath 8 feet of water, and is nearly totally buried in sand.
Kramer said a small portion of the windshield was open. Working in 100% darkness in the muddy stream, the diver felt through the opening.
He found the interior is also full of sand.
That means there will be no way to get the car out until the flood water recedes, Kramer said.
The diver brought up a piece of the car’s vinyl top, which he tore off to confirm it was the car they were looking for — a Chrysler Sebring that was allegedly carrying Alexis Wiezorek, 17, and passenger Noah Ramos, 18, when the car plunged into the river eight days earlier, Kramer said.
Another car — a Chevy Cobalt — is thought to be about 80-100 yards downstream of the Sebring, judging from sonar images, Kramer said. The Colbalt carried three young men who told investigators that they drove out on the road to look for Wiezorek and Ramos, but ended up driving into the river too.
The first report from the sheriff’s office indicated that Wiezorek and Ramos were in the Cobalt, but Kramer said investigators now believe the two were in the Sebring.
The three men were able to climb out of the water. One climbed a bank and the other two were swept into some trees, where they pulled themselves to safety.
With no firm evidence otherwise, family members continue an agonizing wait to see if there might be a glimmer of hope that their loved ones are alive.
Also, investigators want more information about what happened the night of May 18, when Wiezorek and Ramos went missing, allegedly in the river. If investigators would have found their bodies, it would have been solid evidence in the case.
The first diver went in the water at 3 p.m., lowered in a heavyweight, special-made cage created by TK Welding of North Platte. The cage weighed around 3,000 pounds, and the strong current did not tilt it downstream.
A lighter cage that recovery crews tried two days earlier was pulled downstream by the current and deemed unsafe.
Kramer said the first diver could not see anything underwater and he could not definitely find the car. He returned to the bank and took back a pole to use as a probe, working from above the water.
But repeated efforts to find the exact location of the car were unsuccessful. He made three more trips, carrying another man with him to help. After more than a hour, the cage was lifted off the river and boats came in, with crews also using poles to probe. Finally, one of the men on a boat hit a solid object and the spot was marked.
The diver returned to the water at 5:35 p.m. He was in the water for 10 minutes. As he felt his way in the dark water, he determined that the car is virtually covered with sand.
Repeatedly over the previous week, efforts to postively locate and indentify the vehicle were inconclusive. A boat equipped with sonar found an object on May 20, but the object did not always appear during subsequent passes with the boat.
Finally on May 22, the crew was able to hook a buoy to the object — or something near it.
Still, repeated probes with poles were inconclusive.
The water was traveling at a speed of 12 knots, or nearly 14 miles an hour on top, and rolling underneath. A commercial diver dove to find the car around noon on May 24, but the current was too strong for him to be stable. A crane was brought in later that afternoon, with a cage attached to the end of the boom, but when it was tested, it was deemed to be too unstable to be safe and effective.
A bigger crane from Simon Construction was brought in Monday on four trucks. The crane was painstakingly assembled on the river bank Monday and Tuesday. Divers, sheriff’s officers and immediate family members met Tuesday to make plans.
When the diver emerged at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, after the sixth try from the end of the boom, the difficulty in positively locating the car was more apparent.
Sand covered most of the entire car, except the top. In reality, the car is on its wheels, Kramer said.
Some of the Wiezorek family are in the diving business and have helped every day. They have been on the scene throughout the recovery attempts.
Kramer said an impressive amount of manpower and equipment has been donated in the effort so far. For example, Troyer’s crane, which was too small to lower the diver safely, was used to help erect the bigger crane from Simon Construction. And, a four-man commercial diving crew arrived Saturday from the Gulf Coast to help. One of the divers is a second cousin of Noah Ramos.
Kramer said there is no way to retrieve the Sebring from the water until the water recedes, and there is no point in trying to extricate the Cobalt, since that would be equally or more difficult, and the Cobalt probably has little-to-no evidentiary value.
He said it had been a long eight days.
“It is not the ending we wanted and we are not really ending, it is just on hold for now,” he said.
Kramer also said Tuesday there is no new information as to the cause of the accident.
“There is still crazy stuff out there floating around — nothing of any substance,” he said. “There are people that are on the fringes of this and they like to run their mouths. And it has really hampered our investigation because we spent a lot of man-hours chasing ghosts because people just keep putting up false information.”
“We will keep putting out the right information and you guys know everything that we do right now.” Kramer told the news media.
The cranes, divers and other equipment will be removed and the area will remain secured until the river recedes, he said.