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Van Rolls Into River, Killing Three Children Defective Transmission May Have Let Unattended Vehicle Slip Out Of ‘Park’

Family and church members grieved Wednesday after the children of two Seventh-day Adventist schoolteachers drowned when the family’s van rolled into the Columbia River as the family was returning home from a fireworks show.

A team of nearly a dozen doctors and nurses at Lake Chelan Community Hospital spent more than three hours trying to revive the three young children.

“They were just good kids, you know, just an all-around good family. You don’t expect something like that, and when it happens, it floors you,” said Michael Nearents, who attends the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Omak, Wash., with David and Jennifer Hoffpauir.

The accident occurred when the Hoffpauirs and their three children - 9-monthold Nathon; Brian, 6; and Ashley, 8 - were returning from fireworks at nearby Lake Chelan shortly before midnight Tuesday.

The parents locked the van and left the sleeping children inside when they stopped to use restrooms at Beebe Bridge Park off U.S. Highway 97A in north-central Washington, Douglas County Sheriff Dan LaRoche said.

He said the van may have been left in “park” but slipped into “reverse” because of a defective transmission.

When David Hoffpauir, 35, and Jennifer Hoffpauir, 30, came out of the restrooms, the van was gone. “At that moment, they panicked. They could see where it had rolled into the river,” LaRoche said.

The van apparently hit some rocks on the sloped riverbank and turned upside down in the water, LaRoche said. David Hoffpauir ran into the water and tried to get into the van, but the current was too swift. The vehicle sank to the bottom.

Sheriff’s divers were called but could not attach a cable to the vehicle until the current had been slowed by reducing water flow from dams nearby, which took about 45 minutes, LaRoche said. When the van finally was pulled free, the children had been underwater for more than two hours, he said.

LaRoche said investigators are focusing on the Ford Aerostar’s automatic transmission. It was in “reverse” when the vehicle was pulled out of the river, but the keys had been removed - something that should have been possible only with the vehicle in “park.”

“I checked with a local Ford mechanic, and he said they had a lot of problems like that with the old Ford Aerostars,” LaRoche said.

The Hoffpauirs’ vehicle is a 1990 model.

Phone calls to two Ford spokeswomen in Detroit were not returned immediately.

Nearents, who said he has known the Hoffpauirs for several years, said, “They were what you’d call a ‘family’ family. They just had all the right ideals.”

David Hoffpauir’s father, Kenneth Hoffpauir, told The Wenatchee Daily World he couldn’t have asked for better grandchildren.

“It’s just a tragedy, and I tell myself these things happen, I suppose, even if it’s hard to understand why,” he said. “The Lord knows what he’s doing.”

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