Faviola Ochoa stood at the edge of the Merced River on Thursday afternoon, watching the swift waters for any sign of her husband, who vanished 24 hours earlier while desperately trying to save their 3-year-old daughter’s life.
Her husband, Jose Castaneda, a 36-year-old ranch hand and father of five from Stevinson, disappeared Wednesday evening after his daughter was swept away by the current during a family swimming trip at Hagaman Park in a rural area north of Stevinson. He hasn’t been seen since, and Ochoa fears the worst.
“He was everything to us,” Ochoa said in an interview with the Sun-Star. “Now I’m left alone with my kids.”
Ochoa, who is six-months pregnant, also jumped into the water after the child, along with nearly half a dozen bystanders. Ochoa said she doesn’t know how to swim. She and the child were rescued, but there’s been no sign of Castaneda.
“The current probably took him somewhere far,” she said. “Why don’t they go look farther down for him? I’m desperate.”
The mother and child were hospitalized as a precaution. The toddler inhaled water and vomited after being pulled from the water.
Carina Gonzalez, a family friend, said Wednesday was the couple’s third visit to Hagaman Park. They visited the park that afternoon to relax and cool off. Gonzalez said the little girl was released from the hospital and family friends cared for her while Ochoa waited with a group of friends at the park for news about her husband.
Ochoa said investigators should do more to find her husband.
The Merced County Sheriff’s Office called off the search late Thursday afternoon.
“Why did they stop the search?” she asked. “I want them to keep helping me look for him.”
Ochoa, who speaks Spanish, said communication with the sheriff’s office was problematic because of the language barrier.
“They don’t tell me anything, and they don’t take me into consideration,” she said. “I know I don’t speak the language. I only speak Spanish, but they need to find a way to communicate with me so they can tell me what they’re doing.”
Strong, fast currents are carrying large amounts of debris down the river, posing a safety hazard for dive-team deputies, Deputy Daryl Allen said.
He and the deputies feel for Ochoa and her family, but Allen said river conditions Thursday were too dangerous, even for the experienced divers on the sheriff’s team. One of the deputies on the drive team became entangled with river debris Thursday morning, but was not injured, he said.
“I understand her frustrations, I really do,” Allen said. “We don’t need anybody else injured or getting caught in the current. We’re going to continue doing what we can to find her husband.”
Boating and air operations will continue over the next few days. Search teams in two rescue boats will sweep the bottom of the river throughout the day.
Search and rescue teams likely will return to the park to search the river banks over the weekend, Allen said.
Merced County Parks and Recreation is working to restrict access to the river at Hagaman Park while the sheriff’s office continues the search, said Bryan Behn, deputy parks director. Staff will close the lower parking lot to discourage people from swimming.
“We prefer people don’t go down there at this time,” Behn said. “The situation we have is unfortunate. We ask that people stay safe at park sites, especially those along the Merced River. Stay safe, and make good choices.”
Dozens of people flocked to the park Thursday afternoon, despite the perimeter of yellow police tape put up by the sheriff’s office. Many children even played in a shallow channel of the river downstream from where Castaneda went missing.
Numerous drownings have been reported in the last few months on the Tule River, Kern River and San Joaquin River.
So far this year, one 50-year-old man is believed to have drowned at Yosemite after falling into the Merced River from a winding trail. His body has not been found.
About 2,500 cubic feet per second of water currently is flowing down the Merced River, about 10 times the amount in a dry weather year, officials with Merced Irrigation District reported. The district is releasing water to make room in Lake McClure, where about 4,000 cfs of runoff is filling the reservoir.
Allen also said people should stay out of the water completely as a safety precaution.
“That river if flowing, and it’s swift,” he said. “It may not look that way from the surface, but under the water, the current is fast and will drag you away.”
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477