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Man drowns in Mokelumne River after raft flips; two others rescued

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Posted: Monday, May 30, 2005 10:00 pm

Rescuers found the body of a man who drowned after the raft he was in flipped over on the Mokelumne River on Sunday.

The body was found about noon Monday, about a mile downstream from where the raft flipped over, San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department spokesman Les Garcia said.

The victim was identified as Marcos Medina, a Southern California resident in his 30s, by Juan Felix, a friend of Medina's who was rafting with him Sunday.

Felix and another man were rescued from the river after their raft also flipped over.

Because of the river's rapid flow, rescue workers were unable to safely retrieve the body until the water flow coming out of Camanche Dam was reduced, Garcia said.

The body had been wedged between a tree underneath the water, he said.

The men were part of a group of six people who had been in three rafts on the river at the Mokelumne River Day Use Area near the fish hatchery off McIntire Road.

Only a few people in the group had been wearing life jackets at the time of the accident.

Those involved said they had been in the water only for a short time at around 3:30 p.m. Sunday when two of the rafts became snagged against a fallen tree stretching across part of the river and flipped over, sending their occupants into the fast-flowing and icy-cold water.

Felix, 20, of Lodi, was one of two men who were pulled to safety by members of the Clements Volunteer Fire Protection District. He said he and his friend, Juan Carlos Morales, 40, of Los Angeles, were able to grab onto the tree and get out of the water.

But Medina grabbed onto a low-lying limb of the tree and was unable to pull himself out of the current, Felix said. He eventually lost his grip and was swept away.

"The water was just too fast. It was hitting him and he couldn't breathe, and he just let go," Felix said after the accident.

The sheriff's deputies searched into the evening Sunday before calling off the search without finding Medina. They resumed the search Monday.

Witnesses downstream from the accident said they saw a motionless man float by them face-down in the water.

Hak Siv, of Stockton, who was visiting the river with about a dozen of his friends and family members, said they saw the rafts flip over and a few women who were wearing lifejackets struggle to the shore.

"We saw the people screaming," he said. "We saw the body float by."

Siv said the man floated by his group, but because the current was flowing so fast, and the part of the river they were on was so deep, he said it wouldn't have been safe to swim out to the man. Instead, members of his family called 911 on their cell phones.

"You really couldn't do anything," he said.

Rescuers arrived on scene about 15 minutes after the accident and quickly pulled the other two men from the tree.

Bystanders had been able to toss the men lifejackets, who were sitting on the tree trunk out of the water.

As a Reach helicopter circled over head, rescuers tied cables to the tree in the water and those on the shore.

Mike Fyffe, of the Clements fire district, was able to make his way out onto the tree, and help the men walk back along the tree to the shore using a cable for support.

The men were calm, making the rescue go smoothly, Fyffe said.

Once they were back on shore, the two men were reunited with the other members of the group who were crying and fearful for the life of their friend who had been swept downstream.

A woman, who would identify herself only as Girselda, said she had been rafting with the group.

The man who was missing had invited her and the others to go rafting that weekend, she said.

"He says it is so much fun, everything is so beautiful," she said. "We were so excited."

Capt. James Renton, of the Clements fire district, said boat crews from the Sheriff's Department, Reach helicopter and a California Highway Patrol helicopter would be taking part in the search.

But as sheriff's deputies gathered in the main parking lot of the day use area, the scene had the somber feel of a body recovery rather than the frenetic pace of a rescue.

Despite repeated warnings from authorities in recent weeks that melting snow has resulted in cold, fast-moving rivers that are extremely dangerous for boaters and swimmers, the Mokelumne was still crowded Sunday. Even as word of the accident made its way downstream passing from group to group of those picnicking and fishing along the river, people were still disembarking in rafts onto the river, many not wearing lifejackets.

Turlock resident Lisa Samaniego and her family were fishing. She said she had seen the group rafting earlier in the day and had asked why they weren't wearing life jackets.

Later, when she said she saw ice chests and an overturned raft float by she feared the worst.

"It may look calm," she said of the river, "but it's deceiving."

Contact reporter Andrew Adams at andrewa@lodinews.com.

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