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  • HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    Jonathon Miller walks his dog and follows brother Jesse Miller last week as they cool off along the shoreline where the Sacramento and American rivers merge. The area has seen a surge in drownings this summer – the latest an unidentified man on July Fourth.

  • HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    A couple swim near the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers last week. Unknown to most swimmers, the river bed shelf under the water is flat near the shore but then drops off a ledge. "Once you step off, the river's going to take you," said Sacramento Assistant Fire Chief Scott Williams.

July 4th drowning underscores stats showing young males are likeliest victims

Published: Tuesday, Jul. 16, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jul. 16, 2013 - 12:45 pm

On a record-hot Fourth of July, with temperatures soaring to 110 degrees, a young man sought relief in the cooling waters off Tiscornia Park, where the Sacramento and American rivers merge.

Once in the water, he dropped suddenly from sight and never resurfaced, witnesses said.

Rescue teams were called in to search the waters at the beach off Jibboom Street, but they were not able to make a recovery. The Sacramento County Coroner's Office is still investigating whether a body found four days later is his.

The incident marked the seventh confirmed drowning of a young male aged 17-25 in the Sacramento and American rivers since May, and the second drowning within that week.

The death also underscores statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

• The age groups showing the highest rates of drowning are children under 5 and young people aged 15-24.

• Nationally, men are four times more likely to drown than women. They account for 80 percent of drowning victims.

The gender difference is even starker along Sacramento's waterways, which have a drowning rate nearly four times the national average.

Males may have a greater risk because they are more likely to overestimate their swimming ability, choose higher-risk activities, and more commonly abuse alcohol, according to the CDC.

Sacramento coroner data show that males drowned 10 times as often as females from 2003-2008.

After noticing the patterns, Niko King, an assistant chief at the Sacramento Fire Department for 19 years, began a study to find out why the drownings were happening and how to best prevent them.

"I was standing in the same place: Tiscornia Park, Discovery Park, Sand Cove, time and time again, standing by the mother and father with grief," King said.

He found the solution to prevent drowning was not faster boats or better rescue swimmers. "It's all education and prevention," he said.

"It blows your mind to be out there, have someone drown, lose their life – people would witness a lifeless body given CPR and transported into an ambulance. Then you remove the yellow tape and everyone just runs right back into the water."

Assistant Chief Scott Williams said people were still in the river when crews were searching for the missing swimmer July 4.

"They said, 'It's not going to happen to me.' That's just a mistake," said Williams.

Williams said people do not realize there is a river bed shelf under the water that is flat but then drops off a ledge. "Once you step off, the river's going to take you," said Williams. "People are underestimating the current of the water."

Even strong swimmers can be victims. "Nobody is strong enough to overcome the currents and the cold water," King said.

Kelly McFarlane has been a volunteer rescue diver with the nonprofit Sacramento Drowning Accident Rescue Team for two years. She said anyone who goes to a river should know the signs of drowning.

McFarlane said a drowning person is upright, with their head bobbing up and down in the water. Just the top of their head will be visible. "There's no splashing, no yelling. It's very quiet. Most people don't realize that," said McFarlane. "What you see in the movies is not accurate.

"If you're not sure if they're in trouble, ask if they're OK. If there's no response, that's a good sign they are drowning."

She said victims should be thrown something first. If that fails, make sure to approach the victim from behind. Often the victim will instinctively push down with their arms, unintentionally drowning their would-be rescuer as well.

McFarlane said she suspects many of the drownings that occur are due to hypothermia. And half of the area's drownings are alcohol-related, she said. "Often a hypothermic person doesn't recognize they're cold, and alcohol further diminishes a person's ability to recognize they're cold," she said.

McFarlane recommended that swimmers learn to use a ferry angle to get to safety when caught in strong currents. "Float on your back with your feet up, and angle your body with your head directed toward the shore."

Fire officials stressed the importance of wearing life jackets at all times.

"If you're going to be in that river you should, no matter how old you are, no matter how good of a swimmer you are," Williams said. "Very rarely do we find people who drown who are wearing personal flotation devices."

RECENT SWIMMING TRAGEDIES

Since May, more than a dozen young men between 17 and 26 years old have drowned or remain in critical condition from near-drowning in Northern California waterways. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that males in this age group are among the highest at risk for drowning. In the Sacramento region, young men are 10 times more likely to drown than women.

Here are recent incidents involving Northern California residents or locations. The names of some victims have not been released by coroner offices:

• Man, 26, drowned in a residential lake in Elk Grove in the early morning of July 15, after he and a relative went for a late-night swim. He was found in 10 feet of water. Alcohol was a factor in the incident.

• Man, 24, of Woodland, drowned July 4 while swimming with his family at Tiscornia Park in Sacramento.

• Two men, one in his early 20s and one in his 40s, of Fresno, drowned after jumping off a pier at Lake Yosemite outside Merced on July 4. When the older man was having trouble, the other swam back to rescue him. Both men went under together and did not resurface.

• Man, 22, drowned while swimming with friends and family June 30 in the American River near Howe Avenue.

• Jesus Gonzalez, 25, of Vallejo, drowned at Lake Berryessa on June 29, swimming in water 9 feet deep, about 22 feet from the shore in the Oak shores area of the lake.

• Alan Chung, 26, of Fremont, drowned June 29 after he jumped off a train trestle into Alameda Creek near Fremont for fun. He was with his friends at the time.

• A young male nearly drowned June 29 at Lake Natoma. Bystanders pulled him from the water and performed CPR before he was airlifted to a hospital, where he is in critical condition.

• Guillermo Fabian Contreras, 19, of Roseville, drowned June 28 at about 8:10 p.m. at Lake Natoma after swimming out to retrieve a ball for his friends.

• Man, mid-20s, drowned June 23 at about 5:40 p.m. on the American River near Howe Avenue, after being pulled about 100 feet offshore. He was with a friend at the time.

• Nathan Randolph Ramirez, 28, of Sacramento, drowned while swimming at Bucks Lake in the Plumas National Forest on June 8.

• Johnny Reed, 17, of Sacramento, drowned June 1, while swimming near Sand Cove Park in Sacamento.

• Demorea Rafael Benton-Davis, 25, of Elk Grove, drowned on May 5 while swimming in the American River east of the Howe Avenue boat launch.

• Christopher Harris Jr., 23, of Rancho Cordova, drowned while swimming in the American River near Lake Natoma on May 4. He was swimming across the river with friends to a beach at Willow Creek recreation area.

Call The Bee's Ellen Le, (916) 321-1031. Follow her on Twitter @ellenble.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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