Updated: July 19, 2011 at 12:00 am
A Colorado Springs mother and three young girls who died when their van was swept off a washed-out Wyoming highway were remembered Tuesday as a close-knit and growing family.
Laurel Constantinides, 38, a Colorado Springs adoption coordinator, died early Tuesday morning, along with her three adopted daughters, Hannah, 8; Zoe, 5; and Lucia, 2, when their car plunged into a raging creek, said Paul Zamora, coroner of Carbon County in south-central Wyoming.
Their father, Alex Constantinides, 39, a physician, was treated at a hospital and released after pulling himself from the creek and saving a rescuer whose vehicle also had fallen in, the Wyoming Highway Patrol said.
The family’s van was swept 75 yards downstream, the highway patrol said.
“They were such a loving couple and such loving parents,” said Elana Hanson, a long-time friend of the family. “I’m just kind of in shock. We all are.”
Heavy rain began around 7 p.m. Monday in the Medicine Bow National Forest and continued for five hours, prompting authorities to clear three area campgrounds around midnight, said highway patrol Sgt. Stephen Townsend.
The Constantinides, who were camping while visiting family and attending Laurel Constantinides’ high school class reunion, left the North Brush Creek Campground 30 minutes later and were driving along Wyoming 130 when their vehicle plunged into the water.
Everyone in the van was either wearing a seatbelt or in a child car seat, the highway patrol said.
Their van was one of two vehicles, the second driven by the local emergency management coordinator, to go into the 25-foot-wide, 9-foot-deep chasm that formed when a culvert under the road washed out, the highway patrol said.
After climbing onto a bush pile, Alex Constantinides and another man saved rescue Coordinator John Zeiger, whose vehicle was washed 45 yards downstream from the highway. Zeiger was treated for bumps and bruises.
Zeiger said he was heading to check the washout, which he thought was farther up the highway.
“I called the sheriff’s office and headed that way, and as soon as I turned the corner ... I just didn’t see it,” he said. “I went down into the Brush Creek myself, and probably rolled once or twice, and it came back up on its wheels, floated on down and got caught up in some trees, so I feel very fortunate.”
Townsend said the Constantinides’ white VW van likely fell into the water about 35 miles east of Saratoga, Wyo., between 1:15 a.m. and 1:40 a.m.
Hanson said Laurel and Alex Constantinides grew up in Wyoming and spent a short time in Colorado Springs during Alex’s residency before moving to the city when Alex began a family practice, Front Range Medical Arts.
“Alex had wanted to adopt since he was a teenager,” Hanson said. “It was just something they just both felt in their hearts was something they wanted to do.”
While at a sorority gathering, Hanson mentioned to Laurel that she had adopted a child from China.
“She called me the next day and said she and Alex wanted to talk to us about adoption,” Hanson said.
They adopted Hannah and then quickly began the process of adopting Zoe, Hanson said.
Meanwhile, Laurel moved from a social services job to adoption services with Chinese Children Adoption International.
The couple started as foster parents to Lucia, Hanson said, but decided to make her part of the family.
“I thought they were only going to have two, but when they were fostering Lucy, everyone of them fell in love with Lucy,” Hanson said. “Even the little girls kept saying, ‘We want to keep Lucy, we want to keep Lucy.’”
They soon adopted the little girl, Hanson said.
Emily Adams, 19, who knew the family in Wyoming and was three years old when Alex and Laurel Constantinides married, began babysitting for the couple when she moved to Colorado.
Hannah went to Taylor Elementary School, Adams said. The principal of the school sent a message to parents notifying them of a loss in the community, said Devra Ashby, Colorado Springs School District 11 spokeswoman.
The girls enjoyed swimming, cheerleading, dancing, doing gymnastics, Adams said. Hannah was “smart,” she said, while Zoe was “spunky” and Lucia was “a sweetheart.”
“They were the most adorable little girls,” Adams said.
Hanson cried when thinking back to her time with the family — and the thought of Alex being without his girls.
He is the athletic physician at Doherty High School, said Chris Noll, the school’s athletic director. When not at the school or in the office, he sits ringside at mixed martial arts events across the city, tending to fighters.
“It’s an awful shock,” Hanson said. “They were such a close and loving family. I’m worried about how Alex is going to deal with this.”
Gazette reporters Angie Jackson and Ryan Maye Handy, as well as the Associated Press, contributed to this report.
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