Merced River closed after string of rescues

SNELLING -- After several river rescues over the past two days, officials from the Merced Irrigation District and Merced County Sheriff's Department say they're closing access to the Merced River east of Henderson Park for the next 10 days.

Among the incidents was a tense operation Thursday night and early Friday in which a rescue boat flipped, tossing deputies and teens they had just saved into the water. They were marooned on an island for hours until they were pulled to safety.

Later Friday, even more incidents were reported, spurring officials to clamp down on river access.

"We have attempted a vigorous education and public outreach campaign to warn people of the dangers of the high, fast, cold flowing rivers," said MID General Manager John Sweigard. "However, it has become abundantly clear that we must take extreme measures for the time being."

Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said the conditions create an "extremely dangerous situation."

"We are going to make sure we have taken every possible step to prevent a drowning or serious injury during this dangerous time along the river," he said.

Access to the river will be closed through July 10 under order of the MID, the district said in a statement.

The closure decision came Friday after 10 people were rescued near Henderson Park in Snelling; they had become stuck in the middle of the river during a float trip. They had been warned by deputies to avoid the water, but the group of rafters and inner-tubers ignored the warnings, said sheriff's spokesman Tom MacKenzie. Deputies helped pull them out of the water when they became stuck about 200 yards downstream from where they started, MacKenzie said. No one was injured.

Earlier Friday, a woman had to be pulled from the water after getting stranded.

Those rescues came hours after two incidents Thursday evening in which several people had to be rescued.

The incidents led to the river access closure. Deputies will watch the river and signs will be posted to discourage people from rafting or swimming, said Sgt. Jason Goins.

"If anyone is caught in the water, they will be asked to leave," he said. "If they refuse to leave, then they will be subject to arrest. We are just looking out for the safety of everyone."

Thursday's rescues began in the afternoon, when Merced deputies received calls about 3 p.m. that two unrelated groups had fallen into the river.

In one incident, a raft overturned and two people made it to shore, according to MacKenzie. The sheriff's helicopter responded and picked up the two rafters.

The other incident was filled with more tension, though no one was hurt.

About a mile from the first rescue, three teens floating on inner tubes became stranded after getting stuck in trees. Merced deputies responded and pulled the teens aboard a boat. But the boat shut down when the engine sucked in debris.

The boat drifted and hit a tree. Water came over the edge and the boat flipped onto its side.

Three Merced deputies, a Mariposa deputy and the three teens were dumped into the water and marooned on a small island of trees and brush in the middle of the river for several hours.

Dozens of volunteers with the Merced and Mariposa Search and Rescue teams arrived to help.

About 11:45 p.m., the teams tied a rope to a raft and pulled the stranded people, one by one, to shore, starting with the teens. The final deputy was pulled to shore on a kick-board tied to a rope about 1:30 a.m. Friday.

Pazin, watching from shore, breathed a deep sigh of relief after the last person was pulled to safety.

The incidents show why people should stay away from the county's waterways, Pazin said.

"People are not paying attention. The water is cold, it's swift," he said. "The hot weather is melting all the snowpack. And we have warned everybody repeatedly: Do not get near this treacherous water. Nothing good comes of it."

Mariposa County Sheriff Doug Binnewies also expressed relief no one was hurt.

"With this high runoff that we're experiencing throughout the state, we really ask the public to be cautious," Binnewies said. "When they inadvertently step into harm's way, it really puts a lot of professionals at risk."

Mark Recasens, one of the rescued teens, was the one who called 911 after he and his friends got stuck.

"We were in the trees for about, maybe almost two hours, by the time someone came and got us," the 17-year-old Atwater High student said, still shivering from the cold water. "I was in the water for maybe like half an hour, and then climbed into the tree that was closest to me, and tried not to get swept up in the current."

MacKenzie said that when people who are not trained or equipped for rafting it puts rescue personnel at risk when they have to save them.

"If you are not a strong swimmer or have children nearby, waterways are an extremely dangerous place to spend the holiday," MacKenzie said.

Also responding were Fresno County sheriff's deputies in their helicopter; firefighters from Cal Fire; and California Highway Patrol officers, who directed traffic around the area.

The MID statement said warning signs will be posted in English, Spanish and Hmong along the Merced River near Snelling at access points maintained by the MID. On July 10, the safety of the river will be re-evaluated, the MID said.

Samuel Cosby contributed to this report.

Managing Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.