LOS LUNAS — “It could have got so much worse,” said Felix Marquez about the night a sinkhole on the edge of N.M 6 in Los Lunas swallowed up his father who was riding a bike. “I’ll sit and see scenarios in my head that I shouldn’t see.”

On Saturday, May 13, Felix and his father, Sergio Marquez, 40, were enjoying an evening bike ride along the Rio Grande. Felix, 22, said they go bike riding every week and had taken the exact same path over the Los Lunas river bridge just last week.

“We were on our way back home, riding normally, not that far apart from each other,” Felix recounted. “We noticed there was a tiny hole in the sidewalk, but rode past it.

“Then my dad said, ‘Do you feel that?’ We felt a big shake and then the sidewalk just crumbled underneath him. He tried to get out, but he couldn’t bike fast enough as it crumbled.”

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photos
Water and sewer lines for the village of Los Lunas run under the river bridge. Water service for residents east of the bridge was disrupted as crews from NMDOT assessed the damage done by erosion under the bridge.

Felix said he saw his dad trying to grab on to anything he could as he fell into the sinkhole and the strong river current inside. Thankfully, Sergio was able to grab onto some cement and pipes in the hole to avoid being swept away by the water.

“As I’m calling 911, I hear him screaming, ‘I can’t swim!’ and ‘I don’t want to die here, son, but if I do, I love you,’” Felix said. “I start to jump in the middle of traffic, trying to get help. I could feel the bridge shaking. As traffic is going over, my dad is hearing and seeing all this debris falling as it continues to cave in around him.”

Felix said the first time he tried to reach for his dad, a huge piece of compacted dirt, about the size of a 5-gallon bucket, crashed down onto Sergio’s face.

“After that, his body went all the way under the water, and he came up climbing on the other side. He was really dazed after that,” Felix recalls. “I tried to help him, but I couldn’t lift him out.”

Citizen rescue

After 15 minutes of trying to flag down help from passing cars, Heaven Chavez-Rodriguez and her mother, Jacque Rodriguez, came to their aid.

Upon arriving, Chavez-Rodriguez called 911 and said while trying to approach the hole, the dirt beneath her feet started to fall through, so she stood on the fence along the sidewalk, holding on to it while she tried to comfort Sergio.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez tried to flag down passing cars for help, because they needed more people to be able to pull Sergio out.

“My daughter kept telling him ‘you’re not going to die, just hang on!’ I was in panic mode, standing in the road trying to get people to stop, but people were just looking and continued to drive off,” Rodriguez said.

“He said it looked like a horror movie down there,” Felix said. “I told him to stay close to the center because the side is where all the debris was falling down.”

Luckily, Josh Baca-Torres was driving next to Chavez-Rodriguez and decided to also turn around. Chavez-Rodriguez said he came in the nick of time, as the sinkhole continued to get deeper, and every time a car passed, more of the sidewalk would fall in underneath.

After more than 30 harrowing minutes of being trapped inside the sinkhole in the unrelenting current of the river, Felix, Baca-Torres and Chavez-Rodriguez were able to successfully pull Sergio out.

“After we pulled him out, he laid flat on the cement. He had no strength to move because he was gripping onto those pipes for his life,” Felix said. “If he slipped, the water would have taken him.”

Sergio’s wife, Joline Trujillo, said she got the feeling something was wrong when she realized it was dark out and her husband and stepson should have already been home.

“All of a sudden, I got a call from Felix saying they needed to be picked up and that they were in the ambulance by where they fish,” Joline said.

Upon hearing this, Trujillo said she immediately rushed to the scene, and after being bounced from one person to another, she finally was able to reach Sergio and Felix.

“Everyone was crying, and we were just hugging and holding each other for a long time,” she said. “A whole lot of emotions came out.

“While he was trapped, he didn’t want anyone there. He kept telling people to get away because he was worried about everyone else instead of himself. I told him you need to worry about you, too,” Trujillo said, as she fought back tears.

Mending physically, mentally

That night, Sergio’s family took him to the emergency room. Joline said while he is a bit beat up, the doctors said he is OK, but his foot is going to need further recovery.

“It’s not broken, but they said he’s going to have to stay off of it for about four weeks, but the work he does is construction so he’s not going to be able to go back for at least a month,” she said.

Joline said Sergio and Felix hadn’t seen each other for years, but four years ago Felix moved in with them and they were able to get to know each other again.

“Yesterday, Felix said, ‘I just barely got to know my dad and I almost lost him,’” Joline said. “Trying to get a little bit of normalcy back has been very difficult.”

Felix said it has been a struggle for both him and his dad to come to terms with the whole ordeal.

“I can see on his face that he thinks about it like I do,” Felix said. “When I heard him screaming, I knew exactly what he was feeling.

“It was nightmare stuff, like I don’t ever want to hear a grown man scream like that. It was nothing but fear.”

Joline said she is in the process of getting Sergio and Felix in touch with a therapist or someone they can talk to.

Once things calm down a bit, Felix said the family plans to meet Sergio’s rescuers to thank them for the help, which made all the difference in a life-or-death situation.

After the three pulled Sergio from the hole, back in their car, Chavez-Rodriguez said she and her mom were very emotional.

“We both looked at each other, my mom grabbed my hand and said, ‘What if I didn’t hear him?’

“Nobody else was stopping to help. Nobody cared to see why this young man was screaming. After we got there, we saw some people stop to watch and take pictures, but that’s it,” she said. “If we didn’t stop … I don’t want to think the worse, but something bad would have happened.”

Infrastructure failure

The sinkhole formed due to erosion in a culvert under Main Street — aka N.M. 6, a state highway — which then caused a section of sidewalk and dirt shoulder on the north side of the street to collapse.

The collapse occurred where the Lower Peralta Drain passes under the street east of the Rio Grande.

Part of the sidewalk on the north side of Main Street in Los Lunas collapsed after a sinkhole opened up under the westbound side of the roadway as it approaches the bridge over the river.

Kimberly Gallegos, New Mexico Department of Transportation District 3 public information officer, said crews were called out to the bridge at about 10 p.m. Saturday, and the decision was made to close the road in both directions due to safety concerns.

The damage was assessed on Sunday morning, and at about 9 p.m. that day, DOT reopened the eastbound lane for traffic traveling in both directions over the bridge.

Gallegos said the department would be monitoring other river crossings for possible problems since the river is running so high.

As of Tuesday, Gallegos said plans for repairs are still being made.

“We are all working together, putting our heads together. The water is the biggest obstacle right now. The flow was lowered, but it’s still there so we need to see how we can get under the road with water in there,” Gallegos said. “There’s a lot to consider, such as the infrastructure under there like the sewer line. We don’t have a time frame yet. We will be monitoring the site and making sure there’s no further erosion.”

Flow lowered in river

High flows of the Rio Grande have pushed large volumes of water into the Lower Peralta Riverside Drain east of the river, which is its purpose. The drains serve as a catchment for river water during high-flow years, and help prevent water from flooding further into the valley. The seepage is carried south to beyond the city of Belen.

While the riverside drain is part of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District’s infrastructure, district CEO and chief engineer Jason Casuga said the culverts under the roadway have been NMDOT’s to maintain since 1989, when the highway was widened to four lanes.

“When they were doing the new bridge, they replaced the culverts on one side but not the other. I don’t know why,” Casuga said.  “This is not MRGCD infrastructure but it just shows there is a lot of old infrastructure out there. That culvert has probably been in the ground for 30 years.”

To help NMDOT with repairs, the district, along with the state engineer’s office, asked the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the Rio Grande flow, to alter its operations to divert water at Cochiti Dam to the north and store there.

Casuga said as of Tuesday morning, water flows out of Cochiti have been lowered by 1,000 cubic feet per second by the corps.

“At this point, MRGCD is giving lead over to DOT,” Casuga said. “Further coordination for lower flows will go through DOT. We support them in what they’re doing but we won’t be communicating directly with the Corps of Engineers.”

According to data on usgs.gov, water flow in the Rio Grande below Cochiti Dam was at 4,390 cfs on Tuesday, May 16, down from 5,430 cfs midday on Sunday, May 14. In comparison, flow rates for May 14, 2022, were at 1,670 cfs.

North water loop operational

Shortly after the sidewalk collapse Saturday night, village of Los Lunas water department personnel made the decision to shut off the 16-inch water line running under the bridge, said Michael Jaramillo, public works director for the village.

“When we saw the situation Saturday night, we decided to turn it off because we didn’t want to cause more of a problem,” Jaramillo said Tuesday morning. “If it had broken there would have been much more damage.”

Water and sewer lines for the village of Los Lunas run under the river bridge. Water service for residents east of the bridge was disrupted as crews from NMDOT assessed the damage done by erosion under the bridge.

Luckily, the village completed its north waterline loop just last year and was able to bring it online to provide water to residents and businesses east of the bridge.

“If we hadn’t had the north loop, it would have been a bigger impact. It would have effected everybody on the east side,” he said.

After the line under the bridge was shut off, it was a matter of adjusting valves and a few tweaks to the system to get the north loop waterline going. Jaramillo said there was a group of about 50 residents and two businesses nearest to the bridge that initially didn’t have water.

“There was a group impacted in the mobile home and RV park who were out longer until we could come up with a plan to restore water to them. The lines in that area were older, so we had to do a temporary connection from the north loop from the Mt. Laurel area,” he said. “We created a new line and tapped a line directly that had water and were able to get water restored to that area by about 6 p.m. on Sunday.”

Until repairs are completed on the bridge, Jaramillo said the village won’t restore service to the line that runs under it, and will instead rely on the north loop system to provide water to the east side.

“We did the north loop because of this reason, so we’re not scrambling to get water. The north loop water line did exactly what is was supposed to do,” he said. “We are working on a similar project for sewer. Right now, we have the sewer line under the bridge and we want to make sure it’s not damaged during repairs.”

Emergency village meeting

The Los Lunas Village Council unanimously approved putting forth a disaster declaration for damage caused by erosion under N.M. 6.

Assistant Public Works director Brittany Armijo told the council and mayor that NMDOT also wants to file an emergency declaration in tandem with the village to hopefully gain swift access to resources and funds from the state.

Armijo said the erosion is continuing to grow, so it is likely that the bridge will need to be closed off again in the near future. For how long is yet to be determined if they choose to do so. She said NMDOT will have a better idea of a solution once the water goes down. She said the state is actively reducing the flow of water to expedite that process.

A specialized engineer along with a contractor was on site Wednesday, May 17, Armijo said, to do a more comprehensive assessment of the situation to determine next steps.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.

Felina Martinez was born and raised in Valencia County. She graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2021. During her time at UNM, she studied interdisciplinary film, digital media and journalism. She covers the village of Los Lunas, Los Lunas Schools, the School of Dreams Academy and the town of Peralta.