Watch CBS News

Sonar shows car underwater after speeding off Virginia Beach pier; no body recovered yet

Police have yet to recover a body from inside a car submerged in waters off Virginia Beach, officials said, more than three days after witnesses reported seeing the vehicle drive off of a pier and sonar technology pinpointed its location on the ocean floor.

The accident happened before 7 a.m. on Saturday morning, the city of Virginia Beach said in a news release. When police and fire officials arrived at the scene, they found a sunken vehicle that was "completely submerged" near the oceanfront pier. But rough conditions in the water obscured visibility and meant divers could not be deployed to conduct a search, according to the release. 

Instead, authorities relied on sonar imaging to confirm the vehicle's position. Sonar — which is short for Sound Navigation and Ranging — is a mapping technique that uses sound waves for various purposes, including to detect objects beneath the surface of the water. CBS News obtained from the Virginia Beach Police Department a copy of one sonar image that showed the car on the ocean floor. Authorities determined that it was between 17 and 20 feet below the surface, according to police.

A sonar image taken as Virginia Beach authorities tried to identify the location of a vehicle submerged in waters near an oceanfront pier. Virginia Beach Police Department

An initial attempt to recover the car was made on Sunday afternoon, using a salvage barge and a professional salvage dive team from a private company, city officials said. It was unsuccessful because of ongoing dangerous water conditions, which rendered the barge unstable and continued to pose threats to divers' safety.

The Virginia Beach Police Department has shared updates on social media about their response and the recovery plan. Sgt. Sergeant Brian Ricardo, from the police department's special operations bureau, explained at a briefing Tuesday that part of the reason why they have hesitated to remove a body or bodies from the submerged car is because doing that would mean losing evidence from inside the vehicle that investigators might be able to use later.

VBPD Incident Update: 14th Street Pier Vehicle Crash by Virginia Beach Police Department on YouTube

"Generally, because it is a crime scene, we want to leave it encapsulated as best we can. Because when you open up that portal to the ocean, we're going to lose evidence. And that's what we don't really want to do, is lose evidence," Ricardo said.

"If we have to, then that's what we do," he continued. "I mean it's the awful part of our job. But we know as investigators that we have to make those tough decisions."

Video footage taken at the crash site by the Chesapeake Fire Department, using a remote-operated vehicle, showed the tire of the submerged car through dark and murky water. The footage helped authorities determine that the vehicle was upside down and "rocking with the current," police said. 

The second of two video clips recorded by the ROV appeared to show a flicker of the color red. Virginia Beach police noted that, at the time that footage was recorded, ocean currents were four times stronger than the safety limits set for the department's diving team.

"Strong currents & extremely low visibility made it too dangerous for divers to navigate & assess the area safely, especially near a submerged SUV rocking on its roof in the turbulent current," police said on social media, adding that its divers "are trained in water rescue, not underwater recovery" as specialized salvage divers are.

Crofton, the private company contracted to carry out the salvage operation, had to pause and postpone its intended recovery plan after tumultuous waters damaged the salvage equipment, police said. The department said it is working together with the company to form a new plan for the recovery operation as soon as conditions allow.

"The goal of this mission remains to safely retrieve the vehicle, reunite any & all occupants with their loved ones, & maintain the integrity of all evidence," police said in a social media post. "We appreciate our community's concern about this incident. This is an ongoing investigation & we will continue to share updates as we are able. We are working diligently to bring closure to those affected through our investigative & recovery process."

The police department said Tuesday that officers were contacted by a family with a missing relative, and noted that the case "has many similarities to facts and circumstances our detectives have identified as part of the investigation" into the incident at the pier.

"Though we have indicators these cases are related, at this time, we are unable to confirm this missing person is associated with the car that has yet to be recovered. The ROV HAS NOT been able to discern if the submerged vehicle has a license plate attached," the police department wrote on social media.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.