Photo Credit: DAVID F. ASHTON - Firefighters from Westmorelands Station 20 comfort a friend who was swimming with the young man who had just drowned in the Willamette River near the east bank, just south of the Sellwood Bridge. An afternoon of fun cooling off in the Willamette River came to a tragic end on Friday, August 1, when 18-year-old Mario Antonio Martinez Villalta was swimming near the new Sellwood Bridge’s construction barges with two friends.

Some reports stated that Villalta climbed on and jumped off the construction barge closest to shore. “It was reported that [Villalta] jumped from a structure near the water and was not seen again,” said Multnomah County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) spokesman Lt. Steve Alexander.

At 5:28 pm, someone called the 9-1-1 Center to report a possible drowning at the site.

“[Villalta] was having difficulty swimming to shore; it was reported that he was not a strong swimmer, and that he was not wearing a life jacket,” said Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) Public Information Officer Lt. Rich Chatman.

“Two rescue personal watercraft with rescue swimmers and one rescue boat were sent to the scene in hopes of rescuing the young man, but he had submerged below water before their arrival.”

It was originally reported that two of the swimmers had jumped from the Sellwood Bridge prior to the incident, but Chatman later released that that the swimmers entered the water from the east bank, and had been swimming near a construction barge.

An hour after the first call, the Multnomah County Sheriff Department River Patrol arrived to bring recovery divers to the scene.

“For several hours, MCSO Dive teams unsuccessfully searched the area where Villalta was last seen, concluding their search a little after 11 pm.,” later reported Alexander.

On Monday, August 4, a worker in the River Park Center, on S.E. Spokane Street just south of Sellwood Riverfront Park, and also a Portland Parks & Recreation worker, called in reports of a body floating in the river.

“Land-based crews located the body about 20 yards from the east bank of the river, and marine units performed the recovery,” said PF&R spokesman Gabriel Watson. “The Multnomah County Sheriff’s office assisted on this incident.”

The following day, the Multnomah County Medical Examiner's office confirmed that the body recovered was that of Villarata, who was reported to have been a 2014 Cleveland High School graduate. “Accidental Drowning” was listed as the cause of death.

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