Deadly water claims lives over weekend

Four men drowned, and a teenage boy is still missing after falling from an Oregon railroad trestle.

kterhune@idahostatesman.comJuly 23, 2013 

Rivers are dangerous. Rivers are wild. Rivers should be respected.

That's what Paul Roberts, division chief of special operations for the Boise Fire Department, says he wishes more people knew before deciding to swim or float Idaho's waterways.

"Understand that the rivers are dangerous, and you need to pay them the respect that they should have, because if you make even a small error it can be catastrophic," he said.

Roberts oversees the dive team, which answers calls from the benign to the tragic. The group performs dozens of rescues each summer, he said.

The majority of those calls are from stranded rafters whose crafts have continued down the river without them. But some, such as the Saturday death of a 23-year-old Boise man, are anything but simple.

Taylor Royce Wood drowned on the Boise River after his boogie board snagged on underwater branches. Wood became pinned underwater, and by the time friends pulled him to shore and started CPR, it was already too late.

The man was pronounced dead at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center later that day. The Ada County Coroner's Office released his name Monday.

Roberts said calls like that are more rare.

"We do get a number of calls that are emergent: someone is in the water, stuck on something, or there is a body in the water," he said.

The majority of emergency calls come from the stretch of river between Barber and Ann Morrison parks, a popular rafting corridor. But some emergencies - among the department's worst calls - happen in wilder waters not monitored or patrolled by fire crews.

Boise firefighters pull branches, rocks and other snags from the water before the kickoff of rafting season to keep floaters safe. But there is no guarantee, Roberts said.

"That river will always have hazards in it," he said "Hazards will appear where they weren't before because of wind, or moisture, or a branch falling in the river."

Fisherman and swimmers

Wood is one of four men who died in Idaho waterways this weekend. Authorities continued searching Monday for a fifth possible drowning victim just across the border: the boy who fell Sunday night from a trestle into the Snake River.

The 13-year-old was fishing with friends before the fall. The boy was not a strong swimmer, and his friends were unable to get him out of the river before he went under, Malheur County Undersheriff Travis Johnson said.

Patrick Orton, 25, of Sagle, drowned Saturday after leaping from a Sandpoint bridge at about 2 a.m. Police said Orton was crossing the bridge with another person when he decided to make the leap into the water below. His body was later found in Sand Creek.

A Caldwell man swimming in the Snake River with another person drowned Saturday evening. The body of 28-year-old Daniel Bravo-Rodriguez was found Monday morning, about a mile downstream of where he disappeared near Payette's Centennial Park. Nena Martinez, who was swimming with Bravo-Rodriguez, told police she tried to help him, but the struggling man pulled her under as well. She managed to free herself from his grip, but when she tried to grab him, she was unable to and Bravo-Rodriguez went under.

Near Twin Falls, 42-year-old Chen Peir-Horng was swimming in Dierkes Lake when he went underwater at about 4:30 p.m. Sunday. Search and rescue teams who were training nearby pulled the man from the lake and began to do CPR. Despite their attempts, Peir-Horng died at a Twin Falls hospital Sunday evening.

Roberts said he believed the number of drowning deaths seemed "abnormally high" for such a short period of time.

Barb Fawcett, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross of Greater Idaho, said she didn't know why this weekend was so fatal. But she guessed that high temperatures were a factor in driving large numbers of people to Idaho's cooler lakes and rivers.

"It was so hot, and the river with the snow melting off the mountains was nice and cool," she said.

Rescuers can be victims, too

Fawcett urges outdoors enthusiasts to beware of potential dangers on Idaho waterways.

Logs and rocks can present a challenge to people who are swimming or floating, because they are not always visible, she said.

"In a river, you just don't know what's underneath the water," she said. "Trees that are down and weeds that can catch you are really a problem with losing people."

The Red Cross also advocates life-vest use for children or for anyone who knows they're not a strong swimmer. And, avoid any mind-altering substances.

"Do not use alcohol or drugs; the river is just way too dangerous to take that chance," Fawcett said.

Would-be rescuers need to keep their own safety in mind too, she said. It is not uncommon for a panicking swimmer to drag his rescuer down. It is vital to be cautious when approaching someone struggling in the water, she said.

Fawcett said the best option is to throw the drowning person a life ring or other flotation device. That way, rescuers can pull a victim to safety without becoming victims themselves.

Roberts agreed. When Boise Fire Department rescuers come upon someone struggling in the water, they first try to talk the person through getting to safety on their own. If that fails, the dive team attempts a shore-based rescue before getting in the water.

"You really try to talk to them sternly, try to take control of what's going on as best you can, and try to approach them from their back," he said. That way, he said, a struggling swimmer is less able to grab onto his rescuer and force him underwater.

Roberts said he's not trying to scare people away from the water with his talk of danger and drowning.

"The river's a fun place, and it's a great place to recreate," he said, "but you have to understand the risks."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Katie Terhune: 377-6219

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