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Driver's mistake led to river crash, investigators say

A driver's mistake caused a sport-utility vehicle to slide into the St. Croix River in Stillwater, killing both her and a friend in the front passenger seat, and endangering the lives of two others.

Rohini Krishnamurthy, 27, of Minneapolis, hit the gas instead of the brake as she attempted a U-turn with the rented Hyundai Tuscon on Upper Levee Road, according to a Minnesota State Patrol crash reconstruction report released May 28.

She and 28-year-old Mohanraj Pothiraj, of Edina, died within days of the accident. Two women, Deepa Veluswamy and Kalaiselvi Vijayakumar, both 25 and from Minneapolis, were critically injured but survived.

Veluswamy was released from Regions Hospital in St. Paul last month. Vijayakumar remains there in good condition.

The four friends had left the Twin Cities around 8:30 p.m. for a sightseeing trip to western Wisconsin and Stillwater and had apparently wandered onto Upper Levy Road, a narrow, gravel road frequented mostly by locals and marina users.

Pothiraj had been driving the vehicle, but apparently switched places with Krishnamurthy shortly before the 10 p.m. accident, said Steve Hansen, a Stillwater Police investigator who has interviewed one of the survivors.

"We are speculating that they were driving as anybody would do in a new city, and were looking around," he said. "Rohini [Krishnamurthy] was driving an unfamiliar vehicle, and in those circumstances, it's not unusual for there to be some confusion."

The crash reconstruction report concluded that Krishnamurthy had been driving north on the road but decided to turn around near the marina entrance. As she did so, the vehicle accelerated at a southeasterly angle through a thin tree line, down a steep embankment and into chilly water inside the marina's docking area.

"After my investigation of this crash, it is my opinion that the cause of this crash is error on the part of [Rohini Krishnamurthy]," Sgt. J. Thompson wrote in the report. "Just minutes prior to the crashing, Rohini took over driving a rental car during a sightseeing evening with 3 of her friends. Rohini drove north on Upper Levee Road. When she approached the entrance to the Stillwater marina, she decided to make a 'u-turn'. While making the 'u-turn', the vehicle traveled off the gravel road and into the grass where it left visible tire marks. As the vehicle came back onto the gravel, it accelerated quickly, leaving acceleration marks on the road, and it traveled through the trees and into the St. Croix River."

At the time of the crash, Krishnamurthy had told her friends that the brake was not working. However, an inspection of the vehicle showed the brakes to be functional and found no other defects that would have contributed to the crash.

Krishnamurshy had a valid Minnesota driver's license and a toxicology report conducted by the Ramsey County Medical Examiner's Office ruled out alcohol or drug use as factors in the accident.

However, the report indicates that one of the vehicle's safety features could have worked against them.

"The driver door will open from the inside when locked. The other doors will not open unless the door lock is moved to the unlock position," the report states. On 911 recordings captured before the vehicle sank, the occupants said they couldn't open the vehicle's doors. The vehicle remained in drive when it was submerged, investigators said.

Rescue divers later found the vehicle submerged with its doors closed and windows raised. They broke windows to pull the occupants free of the vehicle, which had sunk in about seven feet of water.

"None of the doors were going to open because of the water pressure, at least not until the vehicle was completely submerged," Hansen said. "But you can imagine that in the panic of trying to manipulate the door locks, in an unfamiliar car, in the dark, in freezing water and none of the occupants could swim -- it was going to be difficult for them."

Stillwater Police met with Veluswamy recently and Hansen said she remains in Minneapolis with family members who flew in from India following the accident.

"She's doing great, considering the circumstances," he said. Police have not yet met with the other survivor, Vijayakumar.

The friends were employed by Infosys Technologies, Ltd., a global information technology company based in Bangalore, India, and were providing software consulting and development services for Ameriprise Financial in downtown Minneapolis. They hailed from Tamil Nadu, a state at India's southeastern tip.