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Tubers clung for their lives, watching as family members fell over dam during accident on Rockingham County river

Four people have been found dead after a group of tubers went over a dam last week in...
Four people have been found dead after a group of tubers went over a dam last week in Rockingham County.(Source: WTVD via CNN)
Published: Jun. 23, 2021 at 4:20 PM EDT
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EDEN, N.C. (WRAL) - Nine relatives were tubing along the Dan River last week when they fell over a Duke Energy dam. Four of the tubers hung onto the dam for hours before rescue teams arrived.

“I was just screaming for help most of the time, and then I just prayed,” said 18-year-old Irene Villano, one of the survivors.

They had planned on being on the water for an hour or so, Villano told WRAL. The family left their cell phones in their cars, in Eden.

A few hours later, while they were down the river, they heard water rushing.

She said the family did not see any signs warning them there was a dam. The dam has an 8-foot drop, and the sheriff said he doesn’t know why the group went near the dam, which has warning signs on both banks of the river to keep away.

Irene Villano was the last to go over the dam. She saw the family’s belongings in the water, and her stepmom, Bridish Crawford, face down.

“We wanted to hold onto her so bad, but we just had to let her go,” Villano said.

“We tried to bring her out of the water, but the current just kept swooshing, and we were trying to hold ourselves up too,” she said.

There was nothing they could do. She, her dad, her older brother and her cousin all kept their tubes around them, and grabbed hold of holes and ledges in the dam.

Her 7-year-old brother, Isaiah, was nowhere to be found.

Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page said the tubers were swept over the Duke Energy dam in Eden on Wednesday evening, but authorities weren’t notified until Thursday afternoon.

“I always tell people [to] be careful when you are near a dam because of the hydraulic situation,” said Rodney Cates, emergency services director for Rockingham County. “If you have enough water coming over it, it can put you in a dangerous situation.”

For nearly 20 exhausting hours, they waited until they were rescued.

“We watched the sun go down. We watched the sun come back up,” she said.

Emergency crews rescued 35-year-old Rueben Villano, 14-year-old Eric Villano, 18-year-old Irene Villano, and 14-year-old Karlos Villano. All four tubers were treated at a local hospital for their injuries. Irene Villano is on crutches because of deep scrapes on her feet.

The bodies of her mom, her little brother and a cousin were recovered by authorities.

Villano said her mom was a Godly woman.

“She was the absolute best woman I’ve ever met in my entire life,” she said.

None of the three people who died on the river was wearing a life jacket, Cates said.

“The inner-tube is not a personal flotation device,” he said. “If it deflates and the person doesn’t have a personal flotation device, then they’re struggling in the water.”

One more tuber, Teresa Villano, 35, is still missing. Officials are still searching for her near the Virginia state line.

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