Braxton drowning deaths that claimed life of responding firefighter ruled murder-suicide

SUTTON, W.Va. Braxton County authorities say a Cleveland, Ohio woman intentionally drove her SUV into the Elk River near Sutton Sunday afternoon killing herself, her daughter and a volunteer firefighter.

LaTonya Bell, 42, and her daughter Havana Pipkins, 8, both drowned along with Gassaway firefighter John Dale Forbush, who, along with five others, jumped into the water trying to save the two.

“An investigation into this incident by the Braxton County Sheriff’s Office has revealed that Ms. Bell intentionally drove her vehicle into the Elk River and has been ruled a murder/suicide,” the state Fire Marshal’s Office said in a Monday evening news release.

Reports indicated that Bell that previously threatened suicide. WCHS-TV reported surveillance video shows her speeding through the parking lot of the Braxton County Senior Center at about 2:30 p.m. Sunday. She didn’t attempt to stop.

Forbush, 24, was working about a mile away from the crash scene when he heard the emergency call come in. He reported from the river’s edge there appeared to be people inside the SUV. He jumped into the water.

Water was very cold making rescue more difficult

Forbush’s friend, Tom Skeens, arrived at the scene moments later and also went in the water. Skeens told MetroNews it’s likely Forbush was paralyzed by the water temperature.

“The water temperature was probably about 38 degrees. I’d say it was hypothermic shock because a bystander said he heard John yell he didn’t think he was going to be able to make it back and then they lost sight of him,” Skeens told MetroNews Monday.

Skeens admitted he was barely able to make it back to shore. He along with a state trooper and two members of the Frametown VFD broke out the sunroof and pulled Bell out of the submerged vehicle. He said another individual had broken out the back glass of the vehicle and he and Forbush were working to get to Pipkins. The mother and child were both pronounced dead at the scene. Skeens said Forbush’s body was located about 45 minutes later.

“When I dove in right after he went under, I just about didn’t come back out because the water was so cold,” he said.

Skeens said the incident happened so quickly there was no way to save Forbush.

“I dove in and we got the mother out of the car, but we had no idea where he was at,” he explained.

Firefighter’s service to family, community remembered

First responders across the state are paying honor to Forbush.

Gassaway VFD member John Forbush died when he couldn’t make it out of the water during the rescue attempt

“John D. Forbush selflessly gave his life for strangers in need. He proudly served the Gassaway community for 4 years as a volunteer firefighter. His service to the community will forever be remembered,” the state Fire Marshal’s Office said.

MetroNews spoke with Forbush’s younger brother William earlier Monday.

“It says in John 15:13, ‘The greatest love is to lay down your life for a friend.’ He didn’t do it for a friend, he did it for a stranger. He had a huge heart,” Forbush said.

William said his big brother was his mentor and in many ways helped to raise him during a troubled childhood for them both.

“We didn’t hardly have parents around. Mom was addicted to drugs and Dad was always working. He was pretty much my dad, my friend, and my father figure all in one. It made me much stronger,” William said.

John had created his own business from scratch. He operated a diesel repair shop in the area and had recently expanded into rollback towing vehicles which were highly successful providing roadside assistance along busy I-79 in Braxton County.

Forbush was a horse enthusiast. He owned several horses and enjoyed riding them in shows. He was also the father of a 13-month-old baby girl and he and his girlfriend were planning to get married.

“He and Amber had been talking about trying to find a farm to buy and getting married,” said longtime friend and mentor Tom Skeens.

William said his brother had helped him build the pickup truck of his dreams from the ground up. The brothers had fully restored a 1996 F-350 truck.

“He was a really motivated person. He helped me every step of the way, and now the truck is really sentimental to me,” William said.

Funeral arrangements remained incomplete Monday evening.

MetroNews reporter Chris Lawrence contributed to this story. 

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