Family seeks closure after deadly crash into Columbia River
Francisco Vásquez's voice came from somewhere deep inside him.
The 26-year-old Portlander may have looked short and skinny, but when he sang the romantic corrido ballads of his native Mexico, his voice came out "big and strong."
"He loved Mexico," said close relative Francisco Zacarias. "He came here, just to get a better life with his kids here in America."
That pursuit appears to have ended in tragedy.
Local law enforcement says Vásquez's SUV swerved off Northeast Marine Drive into the Columbia River just west of Interstate 205 around 5:45 a.m. Sunday, May 17. While a Portland Fire & Rescue boat sent swimmers into the water minutes later, according to a call summary provided by authorities, Vásquez's body was never found.
He is presumed drowned by the family, and is survived by two children — a 7-year-old girl and 2-year-old boy — and his wife, Maria, who heard Vásquez's final words.
"He said, 'I fell in the water, please help me.' He started screaming and then there was no more signal," said Zacarias, who is Maria's brother. Vásquez, who had traveled to America only recently, was on his way to work at United Salad at the time of the crash.
Divers with the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office river patrol unit arrived on scene and plunged into the 55 degree water downstream of the crash, combing a couple hundred yards of river bottom with visibility of just zero to two feet underwater. A sonar scan also turned up empty, as did a visual search of the riverbanks.
While a second search on Monday, May 25, was called off due to heavy rains and strong currents, authorities say several others were conducted and more are planned.
The family, however, says their efforts have been lackluster.
"We've been every day at the river, and my sister just sits there and looks. She starts crying, 'Why is nobody looking for him, don't they care?'" said Zacarias.
"If it wasn't a Mexican family, I think it would be different," adds Rockwood community activist Laura Bolanos. "They stopped searching as soon as they found the car."
The family is now seeking funds to recover Vásquez's body and to supplement the sole source of income for the family. A private diver from Idaho has been hired and arrived in town Friday, May 22.
Officer Nola Watts says the Portland Police Bureau's major crash team is "working hard to reconstruct and look at every angle" and remains in close contact with the family.
The sheriff's office explains that it must patrol some 110 miles of waterway and doesn't have the resources to conduct round-the-clock searches. In general, the timeline for recovering a sunken body can be days, weeks, months — or never.
"We recognize this is a really challenging and traumatic event for his family, friends and the greater community," said MCSO spokesman Chris Liedle. "We will continue to perform searches and patrols in the area until Francisco Vásquez is located."
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