Deputies rescue 4 from canal, 3 others likely dead

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Florence, Ariz. - The following is a press release from the Pinal County Sheriff's Office:

On Friday, March 6, 2009 at approximately 0600 hours, Pinal County Sheriff's Office Deputies saved the lives of four undocumented immigrants who had fallen into a Maricopa/Stanfield Irrigation District canal approximately three miles south of Interstate 8 and Trekell Road in an unincorporated area of Casa Grande.

At approximately 0550 hours, PCSO deputy Russell Warren was patrolling an area near Thornton Road and Interstate 8, an area commonly known for drug trafficking and human smuggling, when he noticed a vehicle coming toward him with its headlights turned off. When the vehicle driver noticed the deputy, the headlights to the vehicle were illuminated and the driver continued north on Thornton Road, traveling in the opposing lane of traffic, running at least two stop signs. Deputy Warren followed the vehicle in an attempt to retrieve the license plate number and reported the vehicle was traveling at speeds in excess of 85 mph. The vehicle entered Interstate 8 headed east and continued to swerve across both lanes of traffic, exiting the Interstate at Trekell Road.

Deputy Warren then turned on his overhead lights and attempted to initiate a traffic stop at Interstate 8 and Trekell Road, when the driver of the vehicle sped up in an attempt to evade the officer. Deputy Warren then turned on his siren in an attempt to get the vehicle driver to yield. In the area of Shedd Road and Trekell, the deputy lost sight of the suspect vehicle due to the amount of dust generated from the dirt road surface. Deputy Warren turned off his lights and siren and continued to attempt to relocate the vehicle. As he was traveling in the area of Houser Road, he noticed vehicle lights. He traveled on Houser Road. (parallel to the canal) in an attempt to ascertain if the vehicle parked on the canal bank was the suspect vehicle.

As Deputy Warren approached the vehicle he noticed numerous subjects fleeing from the vehicle in all directions. He was attempting to maintain a visual on the suspect driver while giving him commands to stop running when his attention was diverted to the canal where he could hear people yelling. Deputy Warren immediately turned his attention to the yelling and advanced toward the canal bank, where he saw seven people who had fallen into the canal and appeared to be unable to swim. Deputy Warren removed his duty gear and jumped into the canal in an attempt to save the victims. He was able to retrieve one individual who had gone under the water and pulled him to the water edge, where a second deputy had arrived and assisted them out of the water. The second deputy then threw one end of a pair of jumper cables into the canal to save another victim. Two additional victims were able to hold on to the side of the canal, where the second deputy and his supervisor were able to assist them out of the water.

Unfortunately, three victims were unable to be rescued and have not been located as of the time of this release.

Pinal County Search and Rescue Coordinators immediately started working with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Dive Team and Maricopa/Stanfield Irrigation District in an effort to recover the bodies of the victims. Due to the speed of the flow of the water, the undercurrent and the proximity of the incident to the canal gate, dive team members are not able to safely enter the water at this time. Representatives from the Maricopa/Stanfield Irrigation District informed S/R Coordinator Sgt. Brian Messing that they could not close the main gate to shut off the flow of water as the canal would flood within 10 minutes and create additional hazards to divers. Maricopa/Stanfield Irrigation District Representatives have also informed us they do not close off gates for recovery efforts.

Search and Rescue deputies will be patrolling the canal bank during daylight hours in an attempt to locate the bodies as they surface. Sgt Messing noted the significant risk Deputy Warren took when he chose to remove his duty gear to save the lives of as many victims as possible. "With no one on the bank and the undercurrent in the water, we are very fortunate that Dep. Warren was able to save as many victims as he did and that he is safe," Sgt. Messing said.

Emergency aid was rendered and the rescued victims as well as 5 additional undocumented immigrants were turned over to the United States Border Patrol.

Sheriff Paul Babeu said, "This is yet another tragic result of human smuggling, where the coyotes (human smuggling guides) have no regard for human life. Deputy Warren, Deputy Hernandez and Cpl. Berry risked their lives today to save the lives of others. I am very proud of our Deputies and their selfless acts of bravery."

There is no additional information at this time.