Divers struggle to reach tow truck in murky, swift water as recovery continues on Sacramento River

Divers and a barge equipped with a large crane worked for more than six hours Friday in the water near the Pioneer Bridge to recover a tow truck that has been submerged since late March, when it plunged from the bridge into the rushing water of the Sacramento River.

At 2:30 p.m., CHP South Sacramento officials said the vehicle would not be recovered by the end of operations Friday. Work would continue Saturday, with efforts beginning at 6 a.m.

Friends and family of Shalvinesh and Roselyn Sharma, owners of local Justin’s Towing, said the married couple were on their way to a call the night of March 26. About 8:30 p.m., their truck sent out a GPS ping from near the middle of the Pioneer Bridge, which spans Sacramento and West Sacramento.

After that, the GPS transmissions stopped, and search and recovery efforts began.

It took nearly two and a half weeks to officially confirm the first half of what the Sharmas’ loved ones feared: Thursday, Shalvinesh Sharma’s body was located nearly five miles downriver, recovered by Sacramento and West Sacramento fire crews and positively identified by the Yolo County coroner’s office.

Crews found Shalvinesh Sharma’s body about 8:45 a.m. Thursday near Stan’s Yolo Marina in West Sacramento and Garcia Bend Park in Sacramento’s Pocket neighborhood. The body had reportedly been seen by a park ranger, who witnessed the body floating in the river, according to a Sacramento Fire Department official.

Roselyn Sharma remains missing. Family members and authorities believe both Shalvinesh and Roselyn were inside the tow truck at the time of the March 26 collision.

Closure for friends and family has drawn out over nearly two and a half weeks, as rescue and recovery efforts by dive teams were repeatedly called off due to the unsafe speed of the Sacramento River’s current, CHP said.

Family members of Shalvinesh and Roselyn Sharma on Wednesday were able to secure power of attorney for Justin’s Towing, CHP said, and arranged with an insurance company to contract Global Diving and Salvage, a private Bay Area based that routed a barge to Sacramento.

The barge arrived late Thursday and dive operations began Friday morning, with the goal of pulling the truck out from under about 30 feet of water and bringing it to shore.

The river appeared to still be running swiftly Friday, when dive operations got underway. The barge first required multiple anchors to keep itself steady. Then, divers went in the water one at a time for long stretches — sometimes more than a half-hour at a time.

CHP South Sacramento spokesman Officer Jim Young said divers were able to touch the truck Friday for the first time since search and recovery efforts began last month. However, the challenge is that there’s zero visibility that deep in the water; Young said divers were working “by touch” to identify spots on the truck that are sturdiest and to which chains can be attached.

With water running faster 30 feet under water than at the surface, Young said that divers told him it was like trying to hang on to a flagpole in a hurricane.

Dozens of spectators watched glimpses of the operation from both sides of the river: from a bike path in Sacramento and the Mill Street Pier in West Sacramento. Many people watched for five hours or more.

An American Red Cross van set up a small triage area for family members, offering food and water.

The crash

The tow truck fell into the Sacramento River after a collision with a big rig about 8:30 p.m. March 26. The vehicles were near the highest point of the bridge the moment the tow truck was struck, CHP said.

More specific details about crash itself have not been released by CHP’s South Sacramento office, which remains the investigating agency for the incident.

Less official accounts — some of them circulating on the West Sacramento pier by family, friends and onlookers — claim that the tow truck was hit by the big rig and “vaulted” or tumbled over the railing (they say this accounts for the lack of major damage to the guardrail, which was not broken through).

Several friends and family members also pointed out that the tow truck wasn’t stopped for a call on the bridge, but was driving on the way to a call.

The search

For emergency responders, the focus almost immediately shifted from a rescue effort to a recovery campaign. Due to the sheer height of the bridge, the occupants of the tow truck were almost certainly killed upon impact, a Sacramento Fire Department battalion chief said the night of the crash. The initial search March 26 was called off within two hours.

After first saying a search would resume the following morning, California Highway Patrol announced March 27 that Sacramento Drowning and Rescue Team (DART) divers determined the Sacramento River current was flowing about double the speed of what’s considered safe for a recovery operation.

Recovering the tow truck turned out to be an almost two-and-a-half-week endeavor, proceeding in fits and starts as officials reported multiple times that the river was failing to cooperate.

The Saturday after the incident, five boats among local and Bay Area agencies resumed the effort. On the Mill Street Pier in West Sacramento, dozens watched from a few hundred feet away as search efforts gravitated toward a pillar on the Sacramento side of the river.

Divers checked that location, but by the end of the day, the truck’s whereabouts were still unknown. Despite hours of searching started the morning of March 30, Sacramento and Solano area agencies came up empty and suspended the search again by that evening. Operations resumed once again April 1, when CHP said dive teams found the truck with the help of sonar technology.

But physically recovering the tow truck would require another stretch of waiting — this time for family members to make the necessary arrangements with attorneys and an insurance company to bring in Global Diving and Salvage for a recovery operation.

It has so far taken a laundry list of teams: Sacramento and West Sacramento fire departments; both cities’ police departments; Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties’ sheriff departments; Solano County Office of Emergency Services; DART; the Coast Guard; Global Diving and Salvage and others to patch together location and recovery operations. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. crews also helped located the truck April 1, CHP said.

Community in mourning

The Sharmas’ friends, family and acquaintances have turned the Mill Street Pier in West Sacramento into a memorial. Since the day after the crash, the end of the pier has been adorned with a growing collection of candles, flowers and keepsakes as a vigil to honor the couple, who were quickly presumed dead.

Most of the search and recovery operations could be seen from that pier.

Among more traditional mementos was a soccer ball, still boxed. Friends at the pier March 29 said Shalvinesh Sharma was involved in recreational soccer in the community.

On a visit by The Bee to the Justin’s Towing location in south Sacramento several days after the crash, the facility appeared closed with no activity seen at the garage or its yard. A “No Trespassing” sign hung on the closed front gate, but a few tow trucks and a handful of mangled cars could be seen through a side fence of an adjacent vacant lot.