BALLICO -- A search for a missing 7-year-old girl in McConnell State Recreation Area came to a heartbreaking end Sunday afternoon, after her body was discovered in the Merced River.
The Merced County Coroner's Office hasn't released the girl's name.
The Merced County sheriff's deputies responded to the scene after the girl was reported missing after 3 p.m. The department's helicopter, search and rescue division, and dive team all responded, as deputies patrolled the area, hoping to find the girl alive.
About 6 p.m., however, the Merced County sheriff's helicopter spotted the girl's body in the river, according to Ranger Denis Poole of the state's Department of Parks and Recreation.
Some members of the girl's family held one another and cried after being informed of her death, while others sat in shock.
Sheriff Mark Pazin said an autopsy will be conducted this week to determine the cause of death. Thus far, it appears the death was an accidental drowning.
The park was filled with visitors Sunday, as hundreds of people held picnics and barbecues. Poole said the girl was last seen wading in the water before she disappeared.
The drowning was the third time in less than a month that sheriff's deputies responded to the Mer- ced River because of a report of a missing person. During the two prior incidents, those who went missing were located hours later, alive and unhurt.
Pazin reiterated Sunday the importance of using extreme caution on the Merced River. "We have preached all summer, and these tragedies are still occurring," Pazin said.
Sheriff's officials say those who visit the river should only do so with life jackets and proper safety equipment and children should be given undivided attention.
Visitors should also avoid rafting, swimming or inner-tubing in the Merced River. The water can be high, swift and cold, with an undertow, lots of brush and rocks beneath the surface.
Visitor should also only use areas that are designated for water recreation.
City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.