FAIR BLUFF — Extraordinary tragedy hit one family over the holiday weekend. Five members of a Columbus County family drowned Sunday afternoon in the Lumber River. A mother and 13-year-old daughter survive.
Investigators said 6-year-old twin brothers were wading in the river about 75 feet from shore when one fell into a hole and went under. Their dad, 35, drowned as he tried to pull them to safety. The family's 13-year-old and 8-year-old sons drowned closer to shore, as they tried to help their father.
Divers have recovered all five bodies. They were identified as Vincente Hernandez Bassara, 35, 6-year-old twins Jessie and Jason, 8-year-old Joaquin, and 13-year-old Vincente Jr., according to county coroner Linwood Cartrette.
With his wife Clara watching helplessly from the shore, Bassara and his 13-year-old daughter, Gloria, struggled to rescue the boys. Only Gloria Bassara survives.
It was not immediately clear whether the victims knew how to swim.
Captain Chuck Powell of the Fair Bluff Fire and Rescue Department says the drownings occurred in a portion of the river with numerous dropoffs in the muddy bottom.
The stricken family were apparently migrant workers living temporarily in the county.
Locals say the stretch of river, just outside Fair Bluff's city limits, is a popular hangout in the summer, despite its muddy bottom, submerged tree limbs, dropoffs and holes.
"The water ... goes from four feet, to seven feet, then to 10 feet, and back to about five feet, as you go downstream," said Lt. Jimmy Hammond of the Conway, S.C. Fire Department. "The boys were all together when they got into trouble."
Gloria Bassara, who was in the water when her brothers went under, tried to save them. By the time she reached them, she had been joined by her father.
Vincente Jr. managed to hand one of the twins to his sister, who gave the child to her father. But the child was dead.
Bassara and two of his sons were swept downstream. Hours later, as Clara and Gloria watched from a pier, rescue workers found the bodies trapped under sunken tree limbs, Hammond said.
The two other bodies were found about two hours later at the bottom of a 10-foot deep hole on the other side of the river, which is about 100 feet across.
Richard Ward, 17, of Whiteville, was swimming nearby when he heard Gloria's screams for help.
"I went over there and I was almost to one of the 6-year-olds and I stepped on a piece of glass," Ward said. "That slowed me down. I got over there and I couldn't find them."
Officials said the drownings were the worst in the county's history.
"We've never had anything like this," said Fair Bluff Fire and Rescue chief Butch Meares.
The drownings were the first in that area of the river in about five years, Powell said.
On Thursday, 22-year-old Felicia Cummings died while trying to learn to swim in the Lumber River near Pembroke.
The Fair Bluff Fire and Rescue team coordinated efforts with Columbus County rescue squads and dive teams from Robeson County and Horry County, S.C.
The drownings occurred near the Columbus and Robeson county line near the South Carolina border.