CHEYENNE, Wyo. – Four members of a Colorado Springs family died after their vehicle drove into a washed-out section of a mountain highway in Wyoming and was swept downstream by a raging creek as they fled torrential rains at a national forest campground.
A mother and her three young daughters were killed; only the husband and father managed to escape as the van was carried away.
Officials said debris in the creek blocked large culverts that run under the highway and the water then tore through the roadway, opening a 25-foot-wide, 9-foot-deep breach about 20 miles from Saratoga in the southern part of the state.
The van went into the creek sometime between 1:15 a.m. and 1:40 a.m. and was swept about 75 yards downstream and submerged up to its rooftop, patrol spokesman Stephen Townsend.
Minutes later, a local emergency management official who was responding to the accident hit the same washout and plunged into the creek.
"I consider myself very fortunate. I was wondering if I was going to see my family again, to be quite honest with you," John Zeiger, Carbon County emergency management coordinator, said in a telephone interview from his hospital bed.
At one point the water washed over his vehicle, but the water inside got no higher than his waist, Zeiger said, noting the car windows were up and didn't break. He was rescued after about two hours.
Other responders retrieved the bodies of the Laurel Constantinides, 29, and the couple's three daughter — Hanna, 8, Zoey, 5, and Lucia, 2. The cause of death was not immediately available, but officials said it appeared they drowned. All were wearing seat belts or in child seats.
The father and husband, 39-year-old Alex Constantinides, was taken to a hospital, the patrol said. He was released later Tuesday, according to a hospital nurse.
The family is from Colorado Springs, and the father is a physician who works ringside at many mixed martial arts events in Colorado, said an acquaintance.
"I know that he has the support and love from the martial arts community in Colorado and beyond," said J.R. Gordon, of Lyons, Colo.
Alex Constantinides is the athletic physician at Doherty High School in Colorado Springs, the school's athletic director, Chris Noll, told The Gazette.
Family friend Elana Hanson told The Gazette that Laurel and Alex Constantinides grew up in Wyoming and moved to Colorado Springs when Alex started a family practice.
Hanson said Laurel moved from a social services job to working in adoption services with Chinese Children Adoption International.
"They were such a loving couple and such loving parents," Hanson said. "I'm just kind of in shock. We all are."
Their 1991 Volkswagen camper van and Zeiger's Dodge Durango remained in the creek late Tuesday afternoon because the water was too high to recover them, Townsend said. The Carbon County Sheriff's Office conducted an aerial search of the area and did not spot any more vehicles or people in the creek, according to county Undersheriff Mike Morris.
Many rivers and creeks in Wyoming already are 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 around 7 p.m and continued until near midnight, prompting authorities to begin clearing out three area campgrounds after midnight, Townsend said.
U.S. Forest Service acting spokesman Larry Sandoval said the family had been camping in the South Brush Creek Campground. Two or three other camp sites were occupied that night, Sandoval said.
The campground host had advised campers to find higher ground, he said.
The highway, Wyoming 130, is open but traffic in either direction can only go as far as the washout, which is about 13 miles east of the Wyoming 230 junction. The Wyoming Transportation Department said repairs to the highway cannot begin until the water recedes.
Several other sections of U.S. Forest Service roads and one agency bridge also were washed away.
Zeiger said he was heading to check out the exact location of the washout, which he thought was farther up the highway.
"I called the sheriff's office and headed that way, and as soon as I turned the corner ... I just didn't see it," he said. "I went down into the Brush Creek myself, and probably rolled once or twice, and it came back up on its wheels, floated on down and got caught up in some trees, so I feel very fortunate."
Associated Press writer Catherine Tsai in Denver contributed to this report.