The Fourth of July weekend turned dangerous and deadly along area lakes and rivers, with two people drowning in separate incidents and a third person hospitalized in critical condition.
The rash of drownings and near drownings prompted authorities to remind swimmers to be aware of their surroundings, stay close to shore, avoid alcohol and use life vests.
At Millerton Lake State Recreation Area, a Southern California man drowned as he was trying to aid a family member who was having difficulty swimming near the La Playa picnic area around 2 p.m. Sunday. He was identified as Raul Jimenez, 45, from Santa Ana.
Jimenez had left the designated swimming area for one of the lake’s small islands to help a younger family member when he went under, Millerton Supervising Ranger Mark DeLeon said.
DeLeon said the lifeguards responded within two minutes of getting the call, despite having to pick out Jimenez’s family from the other families yelling and screaming because they were having a good time.
People think, ‘Oh, I can swim pretty good.’ But the terrain underwater is uneven and there are natural geographical hazards. People overestimate their skills.
Mark DeLeon, supervising state park ranger at Millerton Lake
A personal watercraft reached Jimenez first, transported him to a ramp and onto an ambulance, which took him to Saint Agnes Medical Center in Fresno. Jimenez died 45 minutes after the family reported the incident.
Later in the afternoon Sunday, two cousins in the water at Camp Edison along Shaver Lake also found themselves in trouble. Neither knew how to swim and neither was wearing a life vest, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office said.
The cousins, ages 12 and 14, were swimming when the 14-year-old boy went under. The 12-year-old girl attempted to help him and went under herself.
The girl was rescued first, given CPR and transported to Clovis Community Medical Center, where she was in stable condition and was due to be released later Sunday night, the Sheriff’s Office said. The boy was located 25 minutes later and airlifted to Valley Children’s Hospital. As of Monday morning, he was in stable but critical condition.
Then Sunday evening a 4-year-old boy, later identified as Seth Reyes, went missing in the San Joaquin River at Skaggs Bridge Park. He was last seen at the river’s edge before he disappeared, the Sheriff’s Office said.
About 15 people searched for the young boy for a half hour before he was found and pulled from the water. He was flown to Valley Children’s Hospital, where he later died.
To date, a dozen people have drowned this year in Fresno County, the Sheriff’s Office said.
Basic tips to prevent drowning, from the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office: Don’t enter the water if you can’t swim. Don’t enter the water if you have been drinking. Pay attention to your children. Always use personal flotation devices. Apply common sense before a tragedy happens. Young children should never enter the water without PFDs and adult supervision at all times.
Sheriff’s Lt. Brandon Pursell said both the holiday and the heat have been attracting more swimmers to lakes and rivers.
The biggest risks for drowning are lack of swimming skills and – among adults – alcohol consumption, he said.
He advised anyone drawn to the water to avoid alcohol, wear personal floatation devices and keep a close watch over children.
“Unlike a swimming pool, you can’t always see the bottom and the water is dark and murky. There are currents and obstacles in our lakes and streams, unlike your backyard swimming pool,” he said. Most of all, he added, “Apply common sense before a tragedy happens.”
DeLeon, the Millerton ranger, concurred.
Swimming in the river, like swimming in a lake, means being skilled enough to negotiate hazards, like currents and uneven terrain. DeLeon said open swimming is different from swimming in a pool because fatigued swimmers don’t have a wall to hold on to.
“I think people think ‘Oh, I can swim pretty good,’ ” DeLeon said. But what people don’t realize is that there are factors outside of their skills. Step two feet in one direction and water may touch your knees; but step two feet over, and it may be over your head. “It’s pretty scary,” DeLeon said.
The easiest method to prevent drownings are for novice swimmers to put on a life vest, DeLeon said. At Millerton Lake, they’re free of charge: All the park asks is that they’re returned.
DeLeon and his team of lifeguards have dealt with a steady stream of people coming through the park this weekend.
But even for DeLeon’s team of young, seasoned lifeguards, drownings have a ripple effect.
“It takes a toll on the team,” DeLeon said.