Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photos
A work crew with the New Mexico Department of Transportation works to cut through the pavement on Main Street in Los Lunas on Sunday morning to determine how far erosion has gone under the highway.

UPDATE: The eastbound lane of the bridge is open for east and west bound traffic. Village water service has been restored to homes and businesses east of the river.

LOS LUNAS — Main Street bridge is currently shut down both east and west bound after a sinkhole made a sudden appearance Saturday night on the sidewalk leading up to the bridge, trapping a man in the process.

Thanks to the diligence of three passerbyers, a middle aged man was pulled out of the sinkhole alive after falling through while on a bike ride with his son. The son did not fall through and is estimated by a rescuer to be in his early 20s.

Heaven Chavez-Rodriguez and her mom, Jacque Rodriguez, were on their way home when they were westbound crossing the bridge, at around 8p.m.. Rodriguez said she heard someone screaming for help. 

Chavez-Rodriguez said she instructed her mom to turn the car around. After making a U-turn and heading back eastbound over the bridge, the two saw a young man in the road jumping and screaming for help. 

“We pulled up but he said ‘no, don’t park there!’ so we moved up a bit and I jumped out of the car while my mom went to find a place to park,” Chavez-Rodriguez said. “I said ‘what’s going on?’ and when I said that, I heard the man in the sinkhole. He was saying repeatedly, ‘I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die.” 

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

Chavez-Rodriguez said she saw the man inside the sinkhole holding onto some pipes for dear life while water rushed around him. 

“I called 911 and tried to keep the dad calm because he was so scared,” she said. “The water was coming in really fast.”

Chavez-Rodriguez said while trying to approach closer, the dirt beneath her feet started to fall through, so she had to stand on the gate and hold on to that while she tried to comfort the man. Meanwhile, Rodriguez tried to flag down passing cars for help, as just the two of them and the son would not be enough people to be able to pull him 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. 

Thankfully, Josh Baca-Torres was driving next to Chavez-Rodriguez and her mom when he noticed their U-turn and decided to also turn around. Chavez-Rodriguez, who is a medical assistant, said he came just in the nick of time, as the man in the sinkhole was continuing to sink lower and every time a car passed, more of the sidewalk would fall in underneath 

“As cars were passing by, the road was vibrating like it was going to fall through,” Chavez-Rodriguez said. “I asked the son what happened, and he said they were just riding their bikes over and they heard cracking. There was already a little hole, but they went around. The dad fell through on his bike. The son kept going, but quickly realized his dad wasn’t behind him.”

“It’s a lot to take in,” she recalled. “It was scary, but I’ve dealt with some scary things before, so I knew how to handle it. Josh (and I) looked at each other and said, ‘we got this, let’s go.’”

Baca-Torres, Chavez-Rodriguez and the son were then able to successfully pull the man out.

“The son and Josh grabbed his arms, I pulled his side. Then we all fell in the far right lane,” Chavez-Rodriguez said. “He was alert, he was talking to us. He said his leg was hurt. We sat him down on the curb. At that point the cops, ambulance and fire fighters came and took him.”

Noticing the man was shivering, Chavez-Rodriguez gave him her son’s blanket and Josh gave him some hand warmers. After that, they were told to leave the site. 

Once they got in the car to leave, 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.”

Being in the medical field, Chavez-Rodriguez said it was her immediate instinct to help.

“Later that night, the sister reached out to thank me cause she said the son was trying to flag people down for 15 minutes before we stopped,” she said. “She said he did take an injury to the ankle, and some of the sidewalk may have also fell on his head, but that he was going to the hospital.”

According to a KOAT report, Los Lunas Fire Chief John Gabaldon confirmed no other people were trapped or are believed to be missing, and that a water line had to be temporarily shut down to prevent any potential hazards should the pipe running through the sinkhole be damaged. 

The village of Los Lunas shared on its Facebook page that residents and business establishments in the area of Cactus Road and Riverside Park may experience low or no water as a result. 

“We are working with engineers in order to ensure the safety of our water crew that are working to secure and maintain the integrity of a 16-inch water main,” said Los Lunas Water Supervisor Ray Vigil in a Facebook post on the village government’s page. 

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

It’s not a bridge collapse. 

That was emphasized by Kimberly Gallegos, New Mexico Department of Transportation District 3 public information officer, Sunday morning as she spoke to media crews with concrete saws shrieking in the background.

Late Saturday night, on the east side of the Los Lunas river bridge, a sinkhole caused by erosion in a culvert under Main Street — aka N.M. 6, a state highway — 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. 

Gallegos said crews were called out to the bridge at about 10 p.m., Saturday, May 13.

“It was dark and hard to see exactly what happened, even with light bars, so the bridge was closed entirely for safety,” Gallegos said. 

Main Street is closed at Carson Drive, west of the bridge, and at Edeal Road to the east of the river.

Crews returned early Sunday morning to assess the problem. High flows of water in the Lower Peralta Riverside Drain eroded the culvert under the highway, causing the collapse, Gallegos said.

Once DOT is able to remove a portion of the pavement on the road, crews can determine how far south the erosion has gone, Gallegos said.

“If it has only gone to the midline of the road, we will be able to reopen the eastbound lane for traffic both ways, east and west,” she said. “If it’s past the middle, the bridge will be closed in both directions.”

How long it will take to make that determination was unknown late Sunday morning, but Gallegos said residents should check nmroads.com for the latest updates and to keep an eye on local news outlets for new information. 

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

Image from Google maps
The red rectangle indicates about where the collapse occurred.

High flows in 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 DOT’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 the west side (of the river) but not the east side. I don’t know why,” Casuga said. N.M. 6 crosses the Los Chavez Lateral on the west side of the Rio Grande.

Casuga said the district would do everything it could to bring down the river flow so DOT could make the necessary repairs.

“To do that, we’re going to have to talk to the Army Corps of Engineers to see if they will alter their operations to divert at Cochiti and store (water) at Cochiti Dam,” he 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.

“I’m not sure why it wasn’t replaced. This is a main artery in the community and we’ll do everything we can to help.”

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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.

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.