Friday, June 08, 2001

Men tried to save girls from rushing currents

Bodies of three victims recovered from pit

By Walt Schaefer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        CAMDEN — Divers on Thursday recovered the bodies of two girls and a man who drowned trying to save them after they were swept into the murky waters of a gravel pit here Wednesday after a thunderstorm.

        The search for a fourth victim — the girls' father — was suspended at midafternoon and will resume today. The search was suspended to rest the divers and clear the water of human scent so dogs can be used again.

[photo] Cathy Hileman (third from left) walks away from the gravel pit Thursday after identifying the body of her husband.
(Michael Snyder photo)
| ZOOM |
        The bodies of Tara Wood, 11, and her sister, Josey, 9, and Russell Hileman, 37, were pulled from the pit, just south of Camden in southern Preble County, about noon Thursday. The body of Jim “Lee” Wood Jr., 42, had not been recovered. All were from the Camden area.

        Preble County Sheriff Tom Hayes said the Woods were fishing in the gravel pit about 5 p.m. near the mouth of Paint Creek, which feeds into it. The stream had become swollen after heavy rains, but the girls tried to cross it, toward where Mr. Hileman was standing with his wife, Cathy.

        Strong currents in the knee-deep water pulled the girls into the pit. Their father and Mr. Hileman jumped in to try to save them, but also were swept under the rushing water.

        Mrs. Hileman and Mr. Woods' 13-year-old son, whom police would not name, watched in horror as the disaster unfolded. Mrs. Hileman used a cell phone to call 911.

        Rescuers arrived at the scene at 6:30, but suspended the search after it grew dark. They returned Thursday morning with sonar devices, infrared cameras and the cadaver dogs.

Josey Wood
Tara Wood
        The search teams were hampered by the muddy water and what the sheriff described as an “underwater forest” of tree limbs and debris. Divers found the bodies in about 12 feet of water nearly 100 feet from the shoreline.

        About 20 family members and friends stood watch Thursday as divers from Butler, Montgomery and Preble counties, and Richmond, Ind., worked.

        The gravel pit, owned by Wysong Gravel/Camden Ready Mix, is posted with “no trespassing” signs. But Sheriff Hayes said many local residents ignore the signs and fish in the 6-acre pit, which sits off Camden-College Corner Road near U.S. 127.

        Barry Peck, a foreman for Shelley Materials, an asphalt manufacturing plant near the gravel pit, said he sees people there every day. “It's very dangerous, particularly that pit,” he said.

        The Rev. Steven Veg, pastor at First Baptist Church of North Ridge and a chaplain with the Southwest Ohio Critical Incident Team, said the families did not want to talk to reporters.

        “They are all in shock. The little boy (13-year-old) is taking it very hard. We're trying to get him to cry. He's holding it all in.”

        The Rev. Marvin Hocker, pastor of Higher Heights Church of God, said the girls were students at the church school. He described them as “wonderful, precious, fun-loving girls,” adding, “our school will be in turmoil. We have to leave it in the hands of God.”

        Meanwhile, Camden police were dealing with a related misfortune. A part-time Camden police officer who was responding to the emergency call at the gravel pit Wednesday was seriously injured in an auto accident.

        Officer Paul Plaugher Jr., 20, was in critical condition at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton.

        Police said his cruiser apparently slid on wet pavement on U.S. 127 and veered into the path of a tractor-trailer.


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