HIGHLANDS, Texas – A body was found Friday while crews were searching for the driver of a tractor-trailer that landed in the San Jacinto River on Thursday after flying off an East Freeway bridge.
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said that on Thursday, divers were able to gain entry to part of the semi’s cab, but they were unable to locate the driver.
In a Friday morning tweet, Gonzalez said divers were back in the water in an effort to locate the body of the driver, who was identified by family members as 60-year-old Steve Martinez.
Friday afternoon, authorities said they found Martinez's body in the cab of the truck.
Gonzalez said efforts were underway to deploy large equipment capable of pulling the truck from the river. The truck was removed Saturday afternoon. A special team was brought in to help recover the body and remove the truck and trailer.
Update on East Fwy crash: The truck and tractor have been lifted and removed from the river.— HCSOTexas (@HCSOTexas) June 29, 2019
Thank you to all involved for completing the mission at the crash site. We’re grateful to all our first responder partners.
Our condolences go out to the driver’s family. #HouNews pic.twitter.com/0MkOSh8Blm
Officials said the cargo in the trailer is plastic crates and is not hazardous. It weighs more than 30,000 pounds. The truck cab filled with silt, adding to the weight.
Gonzalez said the location of the wreckage near a hazardous materials storage site, commonly called a Superfund site, is also complicating efforts to find the driver.
Texas Department of Transportation officials were checking the structure of the bridge.
Update on East Fwy crash: the body of a deceased adult male has been retrieved from the cab of the truck. Sad outcome, but relieved the family will be able to have a proper burial. May he Rest In Peace. #HouNews— Ed Gonzalez (@SheriffEd_HCSO) June 28, 2019
How it happened
Investigators said a deputy came across a vehicle early Thursday that was facing the wrong direction. The deputy stopped to investigate the scene and determined the driver was involved in a minor crash, spun out and ended up on the wrong side of Interstate 10, facing oncoming traffic.
Officials said that while the deputy was investigating the crash, an 18-wheeler hit the vehicle that had spun out. The driver of the semi, Martinez, lost control, crashed through a guardrail and the truck plunged nearly 30 feet to the river below.
Trouble for divers
The cab of the 18-wheeler is underwater, while the trailer is sticking out of the murky water. Gonzalez said the tractor-trailer jackknifed when it landed, leaving the cab of the truck covered by sand and silt.
On Thursday, the sheriff said that a diver was able to break the glass on the passenger’s side and get into the cab, but was unable to locate Martinez. He said Martinez was found Friday in the cab of the truck.
Another issue that complicated efforts is the toxic sludge from an old paper mill that is buried in a storage site near the scene of the crash. Gonzalez said divers have to wear protective gear in order to conduct their search, which prevents them from fitting into tight spaces.
The driver of the semi was identified on Friday.
Martinez's family said he was married to his wife, Ruby, for 36 years. Family members said he enjoyed spending time with his family, barbecues and he had a very distinct laugh.
His 60th birthday was on Wednesday, a day before the crash.
Rich Logistics released the following statement confirming the driver worked for the company:
“Rich Logistics is deeply saddened by the tragic death of its driver. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family. This matter is currently being investigated and we are unable to provide any further information at this time.”
On Friday, Channel 2 Investigates asked Gonzalez if he thought the guardrails on the bridge, originally constructed in 1971, were sufficient.
"I personally do not think so. There was a previous accident a couple of months back where a young child lost her life," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez added that he is not an engineer.
Channel 2 Investigates confirmed the single-bar guardrails on the bridge, while deemed safe for use by TxDOT, are no longer used in new construction.
Guardrails are not designed or tested to redirect big rigs and busses in accidents. The test standard is typically a 4,400-pound vehicle.
Robert Palm is the founder of Truckers Final Mile, a charity that assists the families of North American truck drivers who die or get hurt while on the job.
On Friday afternoon, he said he was in contact with Martinez’s wife to help with the cost to bring his body home to a San Antonio funeral home.
He said people can donate to their fund through the website.