The body of 5-year-old Matilda Ortiz found in Stanislaus River
On the third day of the exhaustive search for the 5-year-old who’d been swept down the Stanislaus River in Knights Ferry, a group of local river guides decided they needed to do something.
“One guide called those of us that he felt would protect each other and watch each other on the river and weren’t going to be a liability and had experience in river conditions like this,” said David Voortman, owner of River Journey Adventures.
On Wednesday they joined firefighters and sheriff’s deputies in the search for Matilda Ortiz, starting at the location near the covered bridge where she slipped on rocks and fell in, and heading downstream, meticulously checking every strainer, log jam and submerged tree on both sides of the river.
Four of the volunteers, wearing wetsuits and snorkels, searched under water while four others kept an eye on their friends from boats ensure they too weren’t swept away or pulled under by one of the obstacles, Voortman said. Before taking any action, the guides got approval from Stanislaus Consolidated firefighters, who had been searching the river since Matilda fell in on Sunday.
The guides were in the frigid, swift waters for two hours when they stopped at the shore at the River’s Edge restaurant, about a half-mile from the covered bridge, to take a break and warm up.
Almost immediately upon resuming their search, one of the volunteers found Matilda, trapped at the base of a tree in about two feet of water and three feet from the shore.
They surrounded the little girl’s body and blocked off the area with their boats to ensure they didn’t lose her, then contacted the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Department.
Firefighters arrived and several of the river guides helped them recover her body.
All the volunteers had more than 20 or more years of guide experience and certification in swift water rescue.
They’d all assisted in searches before but never in the recovery of a body.
“We are just glad to bring the family closure,” Voortman said.
He said he and the other guides participated in a debriefing with the fire department afterward.
“We talked about who was involved, where you were, how you were feeling at the moment, how you were going to cope,” Voortman said. “We will be checking in on each other but the town is really close-knit so we will have a lot of people checking in on us.”
“Those guys were unbelievable,” Sgt. Anthony Bejaran of the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department said. “The way they could navigate the water. ”
Minutes after the heartbreaking discovery, family members identified the body.
Bejaran credited The Army Corps of Engineers and New Melones Dam for limiting flow, which he said dropped the river levels by about two feet.
As always, the sheriff’s department cautions people to respect the water, especially in the spring when the snow melt keeps temperatures low and river levels high. While flotation devices are a must at all times of the years, in the spring, it’s best not to go near the water, Bejaran said.