Canal accident claims life

By Kevin Wilson: Quay County Sun

Dive teams found the body of a 12-year-old boy Friday night after nearly 24 hours of searching in a Tucumcari irrigation canal.

Residents of Tucumcari hoped and prayed for the best, but feared the worst with every passing hour that Agustin “Augie” Montiel, a fifth-grader at Tucumcari Elementary School, was not discovered by emergency personnel.

Lt. Cleo Baker of the New Mexico State Police said Montiel’s body was discovered at 7:40 p.m. Friday in the tunnel of an irrigation ditch adjacent to Charles Avenue.

Just before 8 p.m. Thursday, Montiel and 15-year-old Gabriel Jones were swimming before currents swept them into the irrigation canal at Seventh Street and Charles.

From the first call to dispatch at 8:45 p.m. Thursday to Friday, many who knew Montiel and his family — and many who did not — stayed to give Montiel’s family support.

“The community has been so helpful,” said Crestina Baca, Montiel’s older sister, on Friday afternoon. “They’ve all offered to jump in and help, but (authorities) won’t let us.”

At 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Quay County emergency personnel pulled Jones out of the water six blocks from the spot he went in. He was rescued where the underground canal surfaced at First Street and Charles. Jones was treated and later released from Tucumcari’s Trigg Memorial Hospital.

City Police Chief Larry Ham said the department treated the late Thursday and early Friday hours as a two-fold operation. The first priority was to rescue Montiel, and the second to keep citizens in the crowd from putting themselves in danger in an attempt to rescue the boy.

Personnel from the city police, the New Mexico State Police and numerous fire departments worked throughout Thursday night and Friday morning. Shortly after Jones was rescued, the Arch-Hurley Conservancy District Volunteer Fire Department set up a chain link fence at a bridge adjacent to Interstate 40, which Ham said was about a mile from the primary search site.

Ham said Jones and Montiel were sucked into the pipe and traveled with the water, which runs east in a pipe about 8 feet tall. Ham said the pipe was big enough for three adults to fit through side-by-side.

The area where the youth were swimming is surrounded by a fence and signs warn against the dangers of trespassing and swimming in the area.

Leading up to Friday night, the hundreds of citizens who came and went reacted differently. Many gave encouraging shouts of, “Come on, Augie,” while others prayed.

A few residents tried to get through the perimeter to either get a closer look or offer personal assistance. Sandee Carmichael, whose little brother is a friend of Montiel’s, tried to help officers maintain a safe perimeter of the scene.

“I’m just trying to keep people from jumping over the fence,” Carmichael said. “That takes away help from Augie because that’s one more person that needs help.”

The incident captured the minds and hearts of people with little connection to Tucumcari as well. North Carolina resident Bob Coltrane was just visiting friends in the city. A frequent traveler, Coltrane had a spotlight in his car and said officers appreciated the offer, but had lighting coming in from A.S. Horner construction crews.

Diving teams arrived at 12:30 a.m. Friday and entered the water about an hour later. The crews dove throughout with breaks every few hours to replenish the air supply before finding Montiel.

Baker said the dive teams were able to find Montiel due to the lowering of the water level. At the time Montiel was found, the water was chest deep by Baker’s estimation, compared to 7-to-8 feet 24 hours before.

As the night turned into the morning, morning into afternoon and afternoon into night, family members refused to go home until Montiel was found. Family members grouped together on the block under a canopy, giving them some shade during a 103-degree afternoon. Many residents had also dropped off coolers and food for those who had not left the area.

Family members tried to keep hope throughout, and were thankful to the community for their presence and support.

“They’ve prayed for us,” Stella Chavez, Montiel’s mother, said through tears. “They’ve been here and they brought us food and drinks.”