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Mother desperate for return of 5-year-old daughter, presumed drowned in Knights Ferry

Well before search and recovery boats were in the water and drones were in the air, Marissa Vasquez and family members and friends were at the Knights Ferry Recreation Area early Monday to pick up the search for her 5-year-old daughter.

Matilda Ortiz was at the popular spot near the historic covered bridge Sunday afternoon with her father and some of his friends. When the group stood up on a riverside rock, several fell in, including Matilda, her mother said.

The little girl’s dad tried to help her but began struggling in the high, fast, cold water, authorities said. Bystanders got him out, and one person had a grasp on Matilda for a bit but couldn’t hold on. The current swept the child away.

A search effort with boats and aircraft was underway late afternoon, but was suspended sometime after darkness.

Matilda lives with her on weekdays in Oakland, Vasquez said. The girl’s father lives in Patterson; Matilda spends weekends with him there.

Vasquez raced from Oakland to Knights Ferry when she got the terrible news, and said she was anxious all night for the search to resume Monday.

Shortly after 7 a.m., she set out on the Russian Rapid Trail with her brother and several friends. “I just can’t sit here and do nothing,” Vasquez said after being told by authorities that preparation for the search was underway.

A bit later in the morning, a sheriff’s deputy told Vasquez that his colleagues were searching along the banks of the river as far south as the Oakdale recreation area.

The Sheriff’s Department also launched camera-equipped drones to help in the search. Waterford Police Services Chief and Sheriff’s Department spokesman Anthony Bejaran told reporters that the department’s dive team assessed the scene and determined it would not enter the water while it was moving so fast.

According to California’s Department of Water Resources, the river flow Monday was about 4,200 cubic feet per second in the area where Matilda was swept away. The temperature of the water is around 50 degrees.

The swift water is stirring up and carrying along silt and debris, Bejaran said, making visibility poor.

A search boat crew member did note that when the sun got higher in the sky Monday morning, visibility improved some. He said he and his partner combed every inch of the Stanislaus, both sides, from the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District station in Knights Ferry down to the Lover’s Leap area.

The Sheriff’s Department had requests from boaters to join in the search but asked that personal watercraft stay out of the water in the area.

Midmorning, Vasquez tearfully said she was sure Matilda was gone, but she desperately wanted her daughter’s body found and returned to her family.

She said her daughter’s father still had hope that she was clinging to something or had managed to get out of the water and would be found. As she said this, he could be heard on the other side of the river, calling Matilda’s name.

A Sheriff’s Department chaplain spent a good part of Monday morning with Vasquez and her family and friends. He understood their urgency, he said, but he also advised that recovery efforts sometimes last weeks.

Rescuers were expected to conclude their search for the day at 6 p.m. before returning Tuesday.

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Deke has been an editor and reporter with The Modesto Bee since 1995. He currently does breaking-news, education and human-interest reporting. A Beyer High grad, he studied geology and journalism at UC Davis and CSU Sacramento.