Raft inventor rescues man on Tuolumne

Elias Ruiz was duck hunting on the Tuolumne River on Sunday morning, on a raft that won him a business contest last week, when he saw a man who appeared to be drowning.

Ruiz said he paddled to the shoreline where the man lay, face down in about 2 feet of water near the Geer Road bridge about 7:10 a.m. He called 911, stepped off the raft and went to work.

“I was able to drag him out of the river,” Ruiz said by phone Sunday afternoon. “He was responsive but could barely talk. ... He was chilled to the bone.”

The man, who said his name was Keith, was taken to Memorial Medical Center for treatment of hypothermia, Ruiz said. The Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District, which responded to the scene, could not be reached for details.

Ruiz, 37, won the first Stanislaus Innovation Challenge, where people pitch business ideas to a panel of judges and audience voters. The finals were held Wednesday night in Modesto, with him and three other regional round winners. Ruiz won $2,500 and an equal amount in professional services.

His entry was the Feather-Raft, which weighs about 55 pounds and can easily be moved from a vehicle to a lake or stream. The basic model costs $925, but he said he hopes to bring the cost down as he expands production well beyond the 19 sold so far.

Ruiz is a math and science teacher at Dutcher Middle School in Turlock. He spent five years as a Navy medic.

Ruiz had gone with a friend before dawn to hunt in the Fox Grove stretch of the river. He said he heard a “gurgling” sound every five to 10 minutes but could not locate it. When he did find the source, it at first appeared to be a seal – far removed from its ocean habitat if that was the case.

Ruiz said he was 15 to 20 yards from the victim when he spotted him; his friend was about 60 yards distant.

Ruiz said Keith apparently had fallen onto old concrete along the shoreline, which kept him from going all the way in. The man told him afterward that he had stopped at Fox Grove because of car trouble.

The rescuer said he later tried to visit Keith in the hospital but was not admitted because he did not have his last name.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385