The Stockton man who drowned at Woodward Reservoir north of Oakdale on Sunday was 18-year-old Maynor Zuleta-Chitiquez, the Stanislaus County Coroner’s Office said Monday.
The office is awaiting toxicology results but is looking at alcohol as a contributing factor, said Detective Kamila Sulkowski. Sheriff’s Lt. Marc Nuno said the teenager was among a group of friends that was swimming and drinking near Picnic Point, just south of the dam.
Emergency crews were dispatched to the reservoir about 4:50 p.m. The county Sheriff’s Department dive team was en route when fire personnel found the body.
According to witnesses, the victim went into the water – it was unclear whether he jumped, dove or waded in – went below the surface, resurfaced, went back down, and that’s the last he was seen alive, said Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District Capt. Josh Tucker.
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“He was within 20 feet of the dam when we found him,” Tucker said. As for the depth of the water, “it was too murky to tell, deeper than we could see. He was about 6 to 8 feet down when we found him.”
Our No. 1 choice, obviously, is a Coast Guard-rated life jacket or other flotation device. A raft with air, or anything that can give you more buoyancy, is better than nothing. But your average Kmart raft is just a thin plastic – certainly nothing you would want to risk your life on, counting on it to save your life.
Stanislaus Consolidated Battalion Chief Eric DeHart
It’s possible water temperature also was a factor in Zuleta-Chitiquez’s drowning. It was only on April 9 that the “no bodily contact” restriction at Woodward was lifted for the season. For water quality reasons, swimming is allowed only when the water level reaches a certain point, and the water that has filled the reservoir is early spring snowmelt.
The water temperature at the reservoir is about 60 degrees, said Jami Aggers, county environmental resources and parks and recreation director.
The nonprofit National Center for Cold Water Safety warns on its website, “You should treat any water temperature below 70 degrees with caution. Below 77 degrees, breathing begins to be affected, the group says. “This is why the official water temperature required for Olympic swimming competition is 77-82 degrees.”
The center also labels water temperature between 70 and 60 degrees as dangerous. “Controlling your breathing and holding your breath becomes progressively more difficult as water temperature falls toward 60 degrees,” the website states. For 60-degree water, it advises the thermal protection of a wet suit or dry suit.
The cold water “makes it very easy for a person to get out beyond their ability and all of sudden they find the cold is affecting their ability to swim,” said Dr. Robert Donovan, an emergency physician at Doctors Medical Center in Modesto. “The muscles just don’t work as well.
“Then you throw in what alcohol does to things. Vasodilation – the warm, flushed feeling people get from alcohol – is one of the side effects. When the skin dilates like that, it’s even easier to lose more body heat.”
Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District has life jackets available for loan at all its fire stations except the one in Valley Home.
How a person fares really depends on the individual and what he or she has been up to – whether drinking or doing some vigorous activity – prior to swimming, said Stanislaus Consolidated Battalion Chief Eric DeHart. “But no matter what type, when you get out to a location and simply can’t touch bottom ... there’s nothing to grab onto, to hold onto to rest ... once you’re there and experiencing trouble, it’s pretty much too late.”
During the traditional summer season, Memorial Day to Labor Day, Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department STARS volunteers staff a life jacket loan program at the reservoir. “On many weekends, they’re all checked out,” Aggers said of the program’s popularity. Before Memorial Day, people still can get life jackets from reservoir staff, she said.
Life jackets typically are borrowed by parents for themselves and their children, said Deputy Royjindar Singh, a Sheriff’s Department spokesman. “Very rarely do they have teenagers getting them for themselves,” he said. “So we do have that issue that late teenagers and young adults don’t want them.
“(STARS volunteers) try to educate them, saying the water’s cold and you should use one, but they can only preach so much. It’s not mandatory. We have tragedies like this every year because people are overconfident or underestimate the danger of the water.”
Poor judgment is exercised because of alcohol, he said, and often simply because people are young and with friends and not thinking things through.
Not just with children but in any swim situation, Donovan said, it’s important to have someone in a group who’s responsible for keeping an eye on water safety. “So often, you have people going, ‘Have you seen Bill?’ when nobody’s seen Bill because nobody’s paying attention. We talk so much about the importance of having a designated driver, but you should have someone designated to keep an eye on swimmers, too.”
Alcohol consumption does more than affect judgment. An article on the website of Swimming World magazine says, “Precision, equilibrium, hand-eye coordination, judgment, ability to process information, focus, stamina, strength, power and speed are all negatively affected for many hours after blood alcohol levels return to 0.0 percent.”
Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327
Safety tips for open water
The National Drowning Prevention Alliance offers these words of warning:
▪ Never rely on toys such as inner tubes and water wings to stay afloat.
▪ Don’t take chances by overestimating your swimming skills.
▪ Swim only in designated areas.
▪ Always swim with a buddy, even if there is a lifeguard.