JACKSON, Miss. – Five young siblings and one adult died early Saturday when a sport utility vehicle went off an eastern Mississippi road and plunged into a rain-swollen creek, authorities said.
Neshoba County Sheriff Tommy Waddell said the victims appear to have drowned after their Dodge Durango left a county road 20 miles southeast of Philadelphia just after midnight Saturday.
Deputy County Coroner Marshall Prince identified the five children who died as 9-year-old Dasyanna John, 8-year-old Duane John, 7-year-old Bobby John, 4-year-old Quinton John, and 18-month-old Kekaimeas John. Family friend Diane Chickaway, 37, also died. The sheriff said all were members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and lived in the Pearl River community east of Philadelphia, where the tribe operates a large casino complex.
The father of the children, Dewayne John, escaped the vehicle and remains hospitalized for hypothermia and water inhalation. The children's mother, Deanna Jim, and Chickaway's husband, Dale Chickaway, also survived. The group was traveling to Conehatta, another Choctaw community, with Dewayne John driving. Waddell said he has been tested to see if he was under the influence of alcohol, though he said official results aren't in. If officials decide to file charges, Waddell said they probably wouldn't act until Wednesday.
It appears none of the nine occupants of the vehicle were wearing seat belts or were in child restraints, the sheriff said.
"It's always sad to hear of the death of a tribal member, but today our tribe experienced a great tragedy with the loss of six beautiful Choctaw souls. I cannot begin to imagine what the friends, relatives and loved ones are feeling," Tribal Chief Phyliss J. Anderson said in a statement. "There are no words that can express our sincere condolences to such a horrific accident. I join many of you in the outpouring display of love and support shown to the families during this difficult time. Our thoughts and prayers are with them."
The crash happened on County Road 107, in a rural area near the Neshoba-Newton county line. Heavy rains have deluged the area in recent days, raising the water level of what Waddell described as a normally small creek. The SUV ran off the left side of the road into the creek near the Kitchner community.
The sheriff said it wasn't raining and there was no ice on the road. "This accident is not weather related at all," he said.
Divers from the Philadelphia fire department had to be called to find the submerged vehicle. Prince said the vehicle was pulled from the water after 3 a.m. In addition to the 30 emergency workers, about 20 Choctaw tribal members gathered at the site, he said.
"It looked like he has just run off the road and went into the water," Prince said. "It was deep and swift. The vehicle was completely submerged."
Waddell said the bodies have been sent to Jackson for autopsies. The Mississippi Highway Patrol will reconstruct the accident starting Sunday to learn more.
Tribal spokeswoman Misty Dreifuss said funeral arrangements would likely be made Sunday. She said the children are expected to be buried together. Dreifuss said word of the deaths spread quickly through the 10,000-member tribe and that members "definitely have been hit pretty hard."
Waddell said that he can't recall a deadlier accident in the county in his 26 years of law enforcement.