Body of machine operator found in gravel pit pond

Friends, family of 74-year-old Paul Ritola gathered at scene

By John Branton and Craig Brown

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Search and rescue crews Friday afternoon recovered the body of the front-end loader operator who went missing in the pond of a gravel pit north of Battle Ground on Thursday evening.

The operator was identified as Paul Ritola, 74, a longtime county resident who lived near the Tebo gravel pit, which is at 24810 N.E. 92nd Ave.

There were apparently no witnesses to the accident.

When Ritola did not return home for dinner Thursday, family members went to the nearby pit, where he had been working, and discovered the accident scene with disturbed gravel, pulled-down trees and broken pipes leading down to the water.

Divers and technical rescue team members responded at 8:45 p.m. Thursday and found the loader on its side in 6 to 8 feet of murky water. It had rolled down a steep, 30-foot embankment into the pit.

Crews were on scene Thursday night and Friday to search for Ritola. Multiple agencies, including the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, Clark County Fire & Rescue, Clark County Search and Rescue, Clark County Dive Team, Southwest Washington Organization of Rescue Divers (SWORD), and Department of Ecology, were on hand.

Several local businesses with access to heavy equipment and expertise also assisted Friday. The sheriff’s office will investigate the accident.

Until midnight Thursday, divers worked in dangerous conditions, said battalion chief and spokesman Tim Dawdy with Clark County Fire & Rescue. They looked for Ritola in darkness and poor visibility in oily, brackish, contaminated water.

“The divers have really done a remarkable job, considering the circumstances,” Dawdy said late Thursday night.

Other rescuers made searches along the shore.

Many of the man’s family members and friends gathered at the scene.

Just after midnight, a commander radioed that divers and others should be decontaminated and change clothes. Rescuers called for clean water and dish soap to clean themselves after leaving the water.

The many rescuers were cold, tired and hungry, the commander said.

The body was found in the water near the front-end loader.

John Branton: 360-735-4513 or john.branton@columbian.com.