A crew of water rescuers from the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District had just finished explaining the dangers of the cold, fast-moving Stanislaus River on Sunday when they heard cries for help.
The powerful current had pushed a raft underneath some trees, tossing eight Lathrop residents into the icy water. Yolanda Castaneda was floating down the river; a life vest keeping only her head above water.
Stanislaus Consolidated Captain Jeff Frye and Engineer Mike Anderson jumped in their motorboat and made it to Castaneda, pulling her onto their boat. Her teeth chattering, she explained to the two firefighters that the seven others in her group were still in the water.
It was at least five minutes, but it felt like forever.
Frye and Anderson took her to shore and headed out on the river again to find the others.
Battalion Chief Eric DeHart, who was waiting on shore, questioned Castaneda about the others in her group, if she was injured and how long she had been in the cold water. “It was at least five minutes, but it felt like forever,” Castaneda said.
She struggled for about 20 minutes to regain her composure from the shock and the cold water. Some passersby gave her a sweatshirt to warm up. The temperature in the river was at 49 degrees, even though the warm weather Sunday had already reached the mid-80s and was on its way to the mid-90s.
“It’s so cold that you can’t be in the water for very long,” DeHart said.
He said falling into a river that cold without protective gear, your body will start to experience hypothermic conditions. Your muscles will cease to work, your energy level will drop dramatically as blood rushes to your vital organs, and you’ll experience difficulty breathing even though your head is above water.
Rocky Ortiz had floated down the Stanislaus River before on his raft; his family does it every year. But Sunday, they weren’t able to steer the raft away from the large trees and other vegetation along the river. Even their two paddles broke as they tried to keep the raft from becoming wedged underneath the trees.
It doesn’t matter how good (a swimmer) you are, the water sucks you down.
A wet and snowy winter has swelled rivers in the San Joaquin Valley. The melting snowpack is rushing water from the reservoirs in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
DeHart said the water in the Stanislaus River was moving about 5,000 cubic feet per second on Sunday, much faster and at higher levels than in recent drought years. At the same time last year, the river was moving about 200 cubic feet per second.
He said last year they had a lot of kayakers, rafters and floaters move down the river too slowly. When they failed to show up on time at a checkpoint, they called authorities for help.
This year, DeHart expects to get a lot of calls for help when the current pushes rafts and kayaks in directions not intended. Finding these wayward floaters can become more difficult when they’re not familiar with the area. They can’t spot landmarks to help rescuers find them quickly.
The Stanislaus Consolidated water rescue crew just happened to be at the Horseshoe Road Recreation Area, just east of Oakdale, when they heard Castaneda screaming for help. DeHart said “it was just a fluke” they were nearby talking about the dangers in the river. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it does happen, he said.
The only way for Castaneda’s group to help on Sunday was to yell for help, hoping someone would hear them.
The group in the raft had cell phones in a sealed, waterproof bag. When they fell into the water, they couldn’t open the bag to grab a phone to call for help. DeHart recommends also bringing along a whistle to alert others along the shore when you can’t use a phone.
LIFE VEST SAVED LIVES
Everyone in Castaneda’s group was wearing a life vest when they were thrown from the raft. The vests kept them from drowning Sunday. Each station for the fire district offers loaner vests throughout the year, available to everyone.
Ortiz said the life vests didn’t help much, because the current kept pushing their bodies against the tree branches.
“It doesn’t matter how good (a swimmer) you are, the water sucks you down” Ortiz explained. He was the second rafter Frye and Anderson pulled out of the water. Another man made it to shore on his own, but there were still five others in the river.
Frye and Anderson headed out on their boat again and pulled two women and a 13-year-old girl out of the water. Two other men, one of them with an ankle injury, waited on shore for Frye and Anderson to return. They did, and all eight rafters greeted each other at the Horseshoe Road Recreation Area.
Most of the rafters were still shaking with tears in their eyes. Some of them had nasty scrapes and cuts they suffered as the water pushed them into tree branches. But they were all grateful the water rescuers were there to help.
Earlier in the day, Frye and Anderson explained how wearing a life vest at all times on the river is essential. “It doesn’t take much for an emergency to happen,” Frye said.
A lot of debris is being pushed down river. It’s not uncommon to see a whole tree floating down river.
Captain Jeff Frye, Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District
More rafts, kayaks and swimmers are expected along the river as the weather continues to heat up. The unofficial start of Memorial Day weekend is just days away, so they expect the calls for help will continue to increase.
Sometimes those calls will come at night, when nobody can spot a landmark along the river. “Some people don’t even have a cell phone, so they’re out here late at night yelling for help,” Anderson said.
When Frye sees someone walking to the river with a cheap individual inflatable device to keep them afloat, “I try to talk them out of it,” he says. Cold water will start to deflate cheaper plastics.
And there is a lot to snag a plastic raft underneath the river surface, including rocks and tree branches. And the strong current is pushing along more than rafts and kayaks.
“A lot of debris is being pushed down river,” Frye said. “It’s not uncommon to see a whole tree floating down river.”
Rosalio Ahumada: 209-578-2394