NEWMAN — As officers Jeremy Cooksey and Jason Hutchinson checked to see how high rain-swollen Orestimba Creek had risen along its banks Tuesday night, Cooksey heard a yell.
He asked Hutchinson if he heard it. Hutchinson said no, and both officers fell silent and listened. There it was again, the yelling.
They followed the sound and trained their flashlights on a man in the creek.
The two officers ran alongside the creek as the man was carried downstream, urging him to swim to the bank and not give up, Newman Police Chief Adam McGill said Wednesday.
But they could not save him.
"About 400 yards downstream," McGill said, "he ran out of energy and stopped fighting and within a few seconds he was face down. He floated and then went under the water."
McGill said the incident lasted less than two minutes.
Authorities believe the man likely drowned while trying to cross the creek in a Ford Explorer at Eastin Road, about three miles north of Newman in western Stanislaus County.
"We are investigating this as a possible drowning," California Highway Patrol officer Eric Parsons said.
If the man did drown, he would be the third death statewide because of the powerful storm that has walloped California this week.
The man had not been found as of Wednesday evening. Although the CHP has the vehicle registration, it did not release the sport utility vehicle owner's name.
That stretch of Eastin at the creek was closed because of flooding. McGill said the man apparently drove around the barriers and ignored the flashing warning lights. The SUV was swept off the road as the driver tried to cross the creek.
"Probability says that this is the person connected to the vehicle," Parsons said, "but we need to tie up the loose ends."
After the water receded, part of the top of a vehicle was spotted sticking out of the creek Wednesday morning not far from where the creek crosses Eastin.
The CHP pulled the Ford Explorer from the creek. Parsons said investigators had not been able to find the registered owner as of Wednesday evening.
Puzzling info in car
He said the Department of Motor Vehicles lists a Merced post office box as the registered owner's address. Paperwork in the SUV had a Newman address. But Parsons said people at that address said they do not know the owner and don't have information about the Ford Explorer.
Parsons and Stanislaus County sheriff's Lt. Charles Grom said a missing person's report had not been filed. Grom said sheriff's departments in neighboring counties have been notified.
McGill said Cooksey and Hutchinson were checking the creek because it is prone to flooding during heavy storms. The creek's floodwaters have reached Newman.
They were in their patrol cars about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday with their windows down and talking when they heard the man yelling, McGill said.
McGill said once they spotted the man, they heard him say, "Hey, who's there?" and, "Help me."
At one point, Cooksey ran back to his patrol car and got a rope and tossed it into the creek a couple of times toward the man but couldn't reach him, McGill said.
Newman officers, sheriff's deputies and firefighters spent more than two hours from Tuesday night to early Wednesday looking for the man after he disappeared in the creek. A Medi-Flight helicopter focused its spotlight along the creek, McGill said.
Sheriff's deputies looked for the man along the creek Wednesday. Grom said the creek water was too turbulent to send in the sheriff's dive team.
He said if the man isn't found in the next day or so and the creek settles down, the dive team will conduct a search.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2316.