CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — The couple and their three young daughters had just fled their Wyoming campsite when a raging mountain creek swept their van downstream, claiming the lives of the girls and their mother.
It was sometime between 1:15 a.m. and 1:40 a.m. Tuesday, and Alex and Laurel Constantinides were about 20 miles from the southern Wyoming town of Saratoga with their daughters — Hanna, 8, Zoey, 5, and Lucia, 2.
Officials said debris in the creek had 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.
The family's 1991 Volkswagen camper van drove into the washed-out section and became submerged up to its rooftop, said patrol spokesman Stephen Townsend. Only Alex Constantinides, a Colorado Springs doctor, managed to escape as the vehicle was carried 75 yards downstream.
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 daughters. The cause of death was not immediately available, but officials said it appeared they drowned. All were wearing seat belts or in child seats.
Alex Constantinides was taken to a hospital, the patrol said. He was released later Tuesday, according to a hospital nurse.
He 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.
The family's 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.
Associated Press writer Catherine Tsai in Denver contributed to this report.