WOODWARD RESERVOIR — Stanislaus County sheriff's deputy Eugene Day tried to revive a 48-year-old man who had gone underwater while swimming with his family on Father's Day last year, but the man died.
Less than a month later, a 15-year-old boy who was snorkeling at the lake drowned.
Day performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on him, too, and regained a pulse, but the boy died at Oak Valley Hospital the next day.
Day, who also is a 23-year veteran of the Coast Guard, said he was frustrated by the preventable deaths and felt he had to take action.
The drownings were the catalyst behind a pilot life jacket program that became more successful than Day or any of his counterparts had anticipated.
Last Saturday alone, 101 life jackets were loaned to children and adults visiting Woodward.
To get the program started, Day partnered with Stanislaus County Parks and Recreation employee Elizabeth Bristow.
Using a grant from the California Department of Boating and Waterways, Day and Bristow acquired 75 high-quality life jackets.
The manager at Woodward allowed the effort to use the old Marina Store to house and distribute the life jackets, and inmates from the sheriff's Alternative Work Program were used to clean and ready it.
On Memorial Day weekend, sheriff's STARS volunteers began staffing the Life Jacket Program every Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.
After reporting the team's initial success to the Department of Boating and Waterways, the Sheriff's Department and Parks and Recreation received an additional 30 life jackets for the program.
Visitors need only show photo identification to borrow the jackets.
It's impossible to know if the easy and free access has saved lives, but no one has drowned at the reservoir this year.
Day experienced his own tragedy in 2011, when his girlfriend and Sheriff's Department crime technician Mary Donahou was struck by a car and killed while processing a crime scene. As a result, the department issued safety equipment to employees that includes jackets with reflective material.
Day said that like Donahou's death, the death of drowning victims must not simply be accepted as accidents but learned from so that others won't suffer the same fate.
Day will be rotating out of his assignment at the reservoir in August, but he hopes that the county will not only continue the program but expand the hours and extend it to Modesto Reservoir.
Bee staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2366. Follow her on Twitter, @ModestoBeeCrime.