Driver dies after car swept off bridge

Swift water rescue personnel return to the riverbank after recovery efforts of a vehicle that was swept off the Artz Road bridge east of Woodstock on Thursday morning. The body of Melba Jo Rice, 78, of Woodstock. was recovered later in the day. The boat at left, manned by Strasburg Fire Department members, became disabled and was eventually towed to the bank by a crew from Shenandoah County and Orkney Springs. Rich Cooley/Daily
Two people exchange hugs along the east side of the flooded Artz Road bridge across the Shenandoah River east of Woodstock on Thursday morning. Rich Cooley/Daily
Shenandoah County Fire and Rescue Chief Gary Yew walks toward the flooded Shenandoah River where Woodstock resident Melba Jo Rice and her vehicle were swept off the bridge into the floodwaters. Rich Cooley/Daily
Fire and rescue personnel and law enforcement officials carry an inflatable raft down to the Artz Road bridge along the Shenandoah River on Thursday as swift water rescue personnel prepared to launch. Rich Cooley/Daily
An AirCare medical helicopter searches the riverbanks near the scene Thursday morning after a Woodstock resident and her car were swept off the flooded Artz Road bridge. Rich Cooley/Daily
Shenandoah County Fire Marshal Dave Ferguson looks across the floodwaters along the Artz Road bridge east of Woodstock on Thursday. A Woodstock resident died after her car was swept off the bridge and into floodwaters. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – A Woodstock woman is dead after her car drifted into the North Fork of the Shenandoah River near Woodstock on Thursday morning.

State Police Sgt. F.L. (Les) Tyler identified the victim late Thursday evening as Melba Jo Rice, 78, of Woodstock.

Gary Yew, chief of the Department of Fire and Rescue, said Rice had been driving west on Artz Road when she attempted to cross the low water bridge and her Ford Fusion was swept along by the current. She called her family, who then called Shenandoah County Fire and Rescue at 9:03 a.m.

First responders from Shenandoah Fire and Rescue arrived on the scene at 9:11 a.m., followed by fire and rescue crews from Woodstock, Toms Brook, Strasburg, Orkney Springs and later the Warren County Rescue Squad and Frederick County Rescue Squad’s dive team. Yew remarked on the combined efforts after the operation concluded.

“We’re extremely pleased with the cooperation we saw among all the agencies that were involved,” he said. “That part of it went extremely well. The incident stayed well organized and everyone cooperated very well together.”

Shenandoah Fire and Rescue Lt. Dawn Mantz said that by the time she arrived the vehicle had already traveled downstream and was found submerged, out of sight from where vehicles were parked on Artz Road.

Crews staged on either side of the river. Access to the eastern side of the river was difficult since the Artz Road bridge was unsafe to cross and Hickory Lane – the other access road – is only partially paved.

Rescue teams on swift water rescue boats from Strasburg, Orkney Springs and Frederick County started out to locate the car and gauge the situation, with personnel standing by farther downstream along the river for safety reasons. The first boat went out at around 10:45 a.m.

“We’ve got to worry about debris going down through,” Mantz said. “They’re going to try to search the car to see if she’s in there.”

Yew was stationed on the eastern bank of the river, along with firefighter Joe Loving, who Mantz said was directing the operation. An Air Care helicopter crew searched the area periodically to see if the driver had made it out of the car and was along the riverbank signaling for help.

According to Mantz, the National Weather Service reported that the river water was flowing at a speed of just under 1 knot, or just under 1.51 miles per hour, and water levels would crest in the afternoon at about 6 1/2 feet.

Shenandoah County officers directed traffic around the access roads. Virginia Department of Transportation workers and state police were at the scene. County Administrator Mary T. Price arrived on the western bank just before 1 p.m.

Technicians reached the vehicle on the outer bend of the river in minutes and worked to pull it closer to staged vehicles in preparation for hauling it out. A bulldozer from Trans Tech Inc. pulled the vehicle out of the river by 3:30 p.m., more than five hours after the incident. Crews did not find the driver in the recovered vehicle, and Yew said that he still doesn’t know how or when the driver got out of the vehicle.

Swift water rescue boats searched for the driver after the vehicle was recovered from the river. Yew said rescue workers found her body 1.6 miles downstream near Headley Road after about an hour of searching.

The victim’s family was on the rescue scene during the day. Yew said her exact cause of death would later be determined by medical examiners. No other passengers were known to have been in the car with her.

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com

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