Spate of drownings pushes volunteer divers to action

At lunchtime on Thursday at Discovery Park, 130 life jackets hung from the five billboard-sized racks that dot Tiscornia Beach, where five people already have drowned this summer.

At most, it’s a 45-step walk from the American River’s edge to the free life jackets, which hang on signs that bluntly state, in English and in Spanish: “Rivers can kill. Always wear a life jacket.”

It doesn’t matter. Most of the life jackets will go unused, or serve as cushions for swimmers sitting on the popular beach. Inevitably, another person will drown there.

“It’s very frustrating,” said John Mohamed, a diver with Sacramento’s Drowning Accident Recovery Team, an all-volunteer group formed to prevent drownings on the region’s waterways. “Last time we were out there, we put two life jackets on some kids and within minutes their parents had taken them off.”

The reality for DART and its divers and rescue volunteers is that, most of the time, they will be working to recover a body rather than rescue a swimmer. By the time they get called, chances are the victim has already disappeared under the surface.

Occasionally, the group will pull someone out who still has a heartbeat. But, Mohamed said, “it’s the exception, rather than the rule.”

This is the way it has been for DART since its founding in 1980 and its evolution into one of the busiest volunteer drowning/rescue teams in the country. DART averages two calls a week in the region year-round, either to look for a drowning victim or a car in a river, or to search for a weapon someone has discarded after a crime.

“Most volunteer teams get one to five calls a year,” said Andrea Zaferes, a vice president at Team Lifeguard Systems Inc., a New York-based group that trains rescuers worldwide. “DART’s getting 100 or more. There’s not a lot of teams that get 50 a year.”

The reasons are basic. The Sacramento area is surrounded by water from its two major rivers, the sloughs of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and various lakes.

The only volunteer team that rivals DART’s for rescue calls is in Lee’s Summit, Mo., near Kansas City, where the 40-year Underwater Rescue and Recovery Group works the area’s rivers and lakes.

This year in Sacramento has been particularly challenging. For a region that averages eight drownings a year, a tally of five from one section of the region’s rivers in a three-week span has alarmed area officials.

DART, which was scheduled to practice life-saving techniques near the San Juan Rapids on the American River on Tuesday night, was diverted to Discovery Park instead by county and city officials who asked the group to maintain a presence there all last week.

“My intent is to make contact with everyone in or around the water and make sure they put life jackets on or be removed from the water,” Mohamed said.

Children under the age of 13 are required to wear a personal flotation device, and if parents will not comply, Mohamed said, “I’m going to ask that park rangers start citing them.”

The focus on the area around Discovery Park comes because of the particularly dangerous conditions that exist there, where the American River flows into the Sacramento River and tricky currents can challenge even the best swimmers.

“It’s like underwater tornadoes, it digs holes down in the ground,” said Sacramento Fire Department spokesman Chris Harvey.

From the American River side of the beach, the area is deceptively inviting. People can walk out into the river almost 75 feet and still be in waist- or chest-deep water, depending on conditions.

But then there is a sudden drop into an underwater canyon that ranges from 15 to 22 feet deep, where the current can sweep a victim downstream to get tangled in an underwater wing dam at the confluence of the two rivers, or out into the Sacramento River, where some spots can be as deep as 78 feet.

The margin for error on the Sacramento River side of the beach is much smaller: a 25-foot walk out into the river can lead to swimmers suddenly finding themselves in deep water and fast currents.

DART divers consider themselves lucky when they get called to search the American River side for a potential victim.

“If you’re going into the current, then it’s fairly clear, so you can see from 3 to 5 feet,” said DART President Michael VanCamp. “Now, once you cross and get into the Sacramento River, you can’t even see the inside of your mask. It’s zero visibility.”

DART, which has 12 divers and dozens of other volunteers who oversee diver safety from beaches and boats, has lost only one diver since its inception, members say, but divers have had a number of harrowing incidents, including getting tangled in trees, rocks and abandoned shopping carts.

Because of the dangers, and the lack of visibility, every diver goes into the water with a tether that is attended to by two people on the beach who watch closely and count the bubbles that surface to calculate how much air the diver has left.

“I’m a diver, but I don’t dive on the team,” said Bob Erickson, a DART director who is a retired sheriff’s deputy and chief of the Fulton-El Camino Park police. “I know that I have no business going down in those blackout conditions.

“I’m afraid every time one of them goes down.”

The divers say they do not keep track of the number of times they have gone into area waterways. And for their own mental well-being, they don’t check on what happens to those they manage to pull out alive.

“A couple years ago, we got two people out of here with heartbeats,” Mohamed said in July of a visit to Tiscornia Beach. “I don’t know what happened to them afterward. We don’t do a lot of follow-up. Or, at least, I don’t.”

The group has managed to assemble a handful of small boats and vehicles to use in its operations, as well as side-scanning sonar for more difficult searches. The Sheriff’s Department has contributed some help, including communications systems for divers, but the team is mostly a bare-bones, nonprofit operation.

No one is paid, and its total revenue reported on its 2013 tax returns was $65,913, most of which came from donations and money pulled in from its annual crab feed, a fireworks booth or donations made online at www.dartsac.com.

The team is available for rescue and recovery calls from fire departments day and night, a responsibility that members fit in around their paying jobs. Mohamed, 64, is a real estate appraiser and broker, and VanCamp, 46, has a computer consulting business.

Zaferes, who has visited Sacramento every couple of years to help train DART members in new techniques and train new divers, said she has been impressed with the precision the DART members exhibit.

“They are more professional than many of the professional teams we work with,” she said. “You would never know they’re a volunteer team.”

She said DART members experience conditions in the Sacramento region that can be particularly difficult.

“There are particles in the water, so flashlights do not help at all,” she said. “Basically, you lay on the bottom and you search by the Braille method. Everything you touch you visualize.”

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