CHEYENNE, Wyo. – A raging creek may have eroded the dirt under a highway for hours before it gouged out a huge trench that pulled four members of a Colorado family to their deaths, a state Transportation Department spokesman said.
"Because we had a complete loss of roadway, it's hard to say whether they'll ever really be able to determine that is actually what happened," spokesman Bruce Burrows said Wednesday. "But it's somewhat likely that that did happen."
He said highway engineers' best guess is that the roughly 25-foot-wide, 9-foot-deep trench in the roadway was created sometime around 1 a.m. Tuesday, shortly before the Constantinides family approached in their 1991 Volkswagen camper van to flee a nearby campground in the dark.
The vehicle carrying Alex and Laurel Constantinides and their daughters — Hanna, 8, Zoey, 5, and Lucia, 2 — traveled about 75 yards downstream after falling into the breach sometime after 1:15 a.m., authorities say. Only Alex Constantinides, a Colorado Springs doctor, managed to escape from the van, which was submerged to its rooftop.
Minutes later, John Zeiger, the local emergency management coordinator who had responded to flash flooding from heavy rain that night, hit the same washout and plunged into South Brush Creek.
Firefighters rescued Zeiger and Constantinides about two hours later. Constantinides was treated at Carbon County Memorial Hospital in Rawlins and released Tuesday, while Zeiger remained there Wednesday in stable condition, a hospital spokeswoman said.
The bodies of Laurel Constantinides, 39, and the couple's three daughters were retrieved Tuesday, but the van and Zeiger's vehicle remained in the creek a day later because the water was too high to pull them out, Wyoming Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Stephen Townsend said.
Townsend said no official cause of death was available, and calls to Carbon County Coroner Paul Zamora were not returned Wednesday.
Many rivers and creeks in Wyoming have been swollen by heavy mountain runoff from a record snowpack. Flooding this spring and summer has been blamed for at least two other deaths and has cost the state an estimated $4.2 million, including damages to public infrastructure including several major washouts, landslides and partial collapses of roadway around the state.
On Monday, heavy rain began in the Brush Creek area of Medicine Bow National Forest around 7 p.m. and continued until about midnight, prompting authorities to begin warning campers at three area campgrounds about possible flooding, officials said.
The Constantinides packed up and left their campsite and got on state Route 130.
Burrows said the water could have been eroding dirt and fill underneath the road for some time with traffic passing over it and may never actually flowed over the pavement.
"To the untrained eye, you'd never be able to really notice it," he said.
The erosion probably began with tiny amounts of water seeping between the pavement and a culvert and eventually made its way through to the other side of road, carrying more and more dirt and fill with it, Burrows said.
"At some point it got to the point where it hit kind of a point of no return where the road surface itself actually started to fail," he said. "That scenario could have been very quick. It could have been literally a matter of minutes when the pavement actually started to fail."
The Wyoming Transportation Department plans to erect a temporary bridge over the washed-out section of highway. The work was expected to be done early next week.
Constantinides, whose whereabouts were unknown, is a family practice physician at Front Range Medical Arts and works ringside at many mixed martial arts events in Colorado.
His practice released a statement calling him the "finest physician, the finest father, the finest man we've ever known. The loss of his wife, Laurel, and those truly wonderful girls is a horrific tragedy."
Front Range's website said Constantinides joined the practice in 2005 and was especially interested in sports medicine and volunteering as team physician for high schools in the Colorado Springs area. He is a certified doctor with the American Association of Professional Ringside Physicians, the website said.