Fresno County sheriff’s pilots used the Eagle One helicopter Monday to rescue a 16-year-old girl trapped against a tree in swift currents in the San Joaquin River.
Their last-minute arrival saved the life of Clovis West High School student Nina Alvarado, who said she doesn’t think she could have survived another minute, clinging precariously to a tree branch as the river pulled her head under water.
“The current got really strong,” Nina said Wednesday. “I thought for sure I was going to die.”
She began to pray.
Looked down and my foot was still there. I was so thankful.
Nina Alvarado, 16, who was rescued Monday from the San Joaquin River by the Fresno County sheriff’s helicopter
The near tragedy unfolded as Nina went floating on the San Joaquin with her mother, sister, boyfriend and other family members. The group was near Old Friant Road when they encountered a large tree in the water. Part of the group managed to go around it, but Nina became stuck after her tube flipped and she felt her foot trapped.
“I realized that I was going to get taken under water,” Nina said. Her mother and boyfriend, seeing the danger, ran an estimated 2 to 3 miles back to a car to get phones and call for help. Nina’s sister shouted from shore for her to be strong. Nina said she was in the water about 40 minutes and felt herself being pulled under when she heard the sound of the helicopter.
The pilots, Mike Sill and Johnny Reyes, were at their base at Fresno Yosemite International Airport when sheriff’s dispatchers received the 911 call. Deputies in the sheriff’s boating unit realized a water-based rescue would be difficult or impossible in the fast-moving water and called for help from the helicopter.
Sill said the helicopter crew arrived within minutes and spotted Nina. Reyes was working as a crew member Monday. Nina said efforts to hover nearby and pull her from the water only caused prop wake to force water higher and threaten to cover her head. After two tries, the crew landed so that they could rig a collar for Nina to put around her body to be pulled from the water.
But it took a leap of faith for her to put both arms through the collar. Nina said she was afraid to let go of the tree and also afraid that the pull of the helicopter would rip off her foot while freeing her from the tree. But she said she realized “I’m going to die here,” and prayed for the best.
“Looked down and my foot was still there,” she said. “I was so thankful. It’s definitely going to keep me away from the river for awhile.”