Rescue diver Terry Niebeling was carefully picking his way underwater Tuesday evening in the Mississippi River, trying to locate a lost radio, when a large object loomed in the murky depths.
“I basically just ran into the side of it,” Niebeling said.
It was a black, four-door Acura, half on its roof, sunk 22 feet down in the river and encrusted with zebra mussels.
“It is the biggest discovery the team has ever had,” Niebeling said.
The La Crosse Area Underwater Search and Rescue Team had used the search for a La Crescent Fire Department hand-held radio – accidentally dropped off the dock at Sportsman’s Landing on the Minnesota side – as a training exercise.
But when Niebeling signaled at 7:02 p.m. he’d found something much bigger about 30 feet off shore, “all of a sudden … things get serious,” said team commander Erwin Chavarri.
Thankfully, the car contained no body, bones or suspicious items when it was retrieved from the river.
The expired Minnesota license plates are not on file with the Department of Motor Vehicles, said Houston County Sheriff Douglas Ely. Authorities now hope the vehicle identification number will lead to the owner.
Ely’s best guess is the car was stolen and dumped in the water.
Chavarri estimates it spent at least four years on the river bottom. Crayfish and mudpuppies spilled from the vehicle when it was towed to the riverbank.
“It’s completely full of mud. It’s gross. It stinks,” Ely said.
The dive team occasionally discovers submerged items during training, but nothing like Tuesday’s find.
“Vehicles are very unique,” Chavarri said.