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3 Die In Wis. Crashes After Rain Washes Away Road

NEILLSVILLE, Wis. (AP) — Two vehicles in central Wisconsin plunged into a ravine created when heavy rains washed away a 50-foot stretch of highway, killing three people, authorities said Thursday.

A passer-by discovered the vehicles about 1:30 a.m. in the large hole in a county road near Neillsville, about 50 miles southeast of Eau Claire, Clark County Chief Deputy Jim Backus said.

A pickup truck carrying two people crashed into the ravine first. Another vehicle with one occupant later crashed into the same crevasse. All three were pronounced dead at the scene.

The National Weather Service said the area had received only 1 to 3 inches of rain Wednesday night, but meteorologist Todd Shea added that the area was saturated from heavy rain in previous days. He said about 4 inches had fallen over the past 7 days, leading to saturated soil that couldn't absorb much more rain.

"The 1 to 3 inches likely ran off more than it would have in a normal situation," he said.

The rain swept away an entire segment of highway, leaving a ravine at least 10 feet deep with a swift-moving river at the bottom.

"It's unreal," Backus said. "We've never had problems there before."

It's not clear when the crashes happened so investigators can't say if it was raining at the time, Backus said.

The washout occurred about 200 miles south of Duluth, Minn., where heavy rainfall on Tuesday and Wednesday created flooding that killed a dozen barnyard animals at a zoo and allowed a polar bear and two harbor seals to temporarily escape their enclosures. An 8-year-old boy also suffered scrapes and bruises when he was swept about six blocks.

The area where the Wisconsin highway washed out is expected to get a brief chance to dry out, Shea said. Forecasts call for a risk of thunderstorms in the region late Friday and early Saturday, but the weather service was still trying to predict the path they might take.

Even if there are storms, rainfall would likely be less than an inch, Shea said.

"We don't foresee heavy rain in the impacted area in the next several days," he said.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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