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State Fire Marshal: Volunteer firefighter dies while attempting to rescue victims in murder/suicide

Sutton, West Virginia — On May 1, 2022, at approximately 2:30 p.m., a vehicle drove into the Elk River, resulting in the death of both vehicle occupants and an off-duty volunteer firefighter, who attempted to provide aid to the victims before emergency responders arrived on scene.

The vehicle, operated by 42-year-old LaTonya Bell of Cleveland, Ohio, drove into the Elk River near the area of the Braxton County Senior Citizens Center along Route 4. While working less than a mile away, off-duty Gassaway Volunteer Firefighter, John D. Forbush, 24-years-old, heard the initial dispatch call on his department-issued radio and responded directly to the scene.

Once on scene, Firefighter Forbush communicated via radio transmission that there appeared to be victims trapped inside the vehicle and immediately jumped into the river to rescue the victims. During the rescue efforts, Firefighter Forbush was unable to free the victims from the vehicle, and he also lost his life.

The fatalities from this incident included 42-year-old LaTonya Bell of Cleveland, Ohio, 8-year-old Havana Pipkins of Cleveland, Ohio, and 24-year-old John D. Forbush of Gassaway, whose body was recovered from the Elk River at approximately 4:26 p.m. All three victims have been sent to the West Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Charleston.

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.

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.

Summersville Fire Department, from Nicholas County, also responded to the scene with Dive Rescue resources. Fire departments from around the region will continue to provide resources and support to the Gassaway VFD and the citizens of Braxton County.

More information will be released as it becomes available.

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