Swimming in safety
When he was a member of the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office dive team about 15 years ago, Multnomah County Sheriff's Deputy "Rocky" Joe Graziano remembers regularly rescuing swimmers in trouble along the Sandy River.
A little more recently, while kayaking the Sandy for fun on a 100-degree day, he floated by a man standing several feet into the river, holding an infant precariously above the water.
"There was a ledge there," Graziano recalled with a look of disbelief. "If he had slipped, they both would have gone in the water ... It was pretty amazing."
Sadly, a recent spate of drownings on the Sandy and Columbia rivers — an 8-year-old and 15-year-old at Oxbow Regional Park and an adult swimmer at Rooster Rock State Park on the Columbia River lost their lives between July 30 and Aug. 19 — brings those past experiences flooding back.
"It kind of repeats itself," Graziano said of river tragedies. "We're still responding to these same exact calls, and these incidents still go on just as they always have. It's a sad thing about life."
Through a combination of increasing water safety awareness, providing more life jackets and encouraging their use, and looking at other options including more lifeguards and improved communications access — area parks and safety officials are eager to disrupt this tragic pattern.
"We're doing less than we're capable of doing to save people's lives, and that should be unacceptable to the public," said Mike McKeel, chairman of Multnomah Rural Fire Protection District 10, which helps serve Oxbow park's emergency needs. "We are in the business of keeping people from losing their lives, keeping them out of trouble and responding in the most immediate way."
McKeel wants to improve the already impressive success rate of Districts 10 and 1, which work together to serve Oxbow park's emergency needs. Specifically, he thinks Metro regional government, which runs Oxbow park, should look into possibilities like improving phone and communications systems in the isolated recreation area, and perhaps adding additional staff — including trained lifeguards — on the hottest and busiest days of the summer.
"As far as I know there is no public (phone) call box there," McKeel said of the Oxbow boat ramp area. "Someone who's deep in the park, they have to find a (ranger) who has a radio, a walkie-talkie" to initiate an emergency rescue call. "In my opinion, that's still problematic and something needs to be done to fix it."
Know your abilities
The first drowning this summer in Oxbow park occurred on Tuesday, July 30. An 8-year-old boy spending the afternoon at the Sandy River with his family was playing in the water just off the park's boat launch ramp. Reports indicated he wasn't wearing a life jacket when he disappeared around noon.
Gresham Fire and Emergency Services responded 25 minutes after the 911 call was made. The boy had not been seen for 20 to 30 minutes prior to the call, and a lack of cellphone service deep in the Sandy River canyon also delayed the response. His body was found a few hours later, and the boy was pronounced dead at the scene.
Two weeks later, on the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 12, a second child drowned at Oxbow.
A 15-year-old boy had waded in about knee-deep water when his family saw him slip under the water. A family member quickly called 911, and search and rescue attempts began shortly after.
His body was recovered about three hours later.
On Monday, Aug. 19, a third person drowned in East Multnomah County, marking a difficult Outdoor Safety Month for the victim's loved ones and emergency responders working the scenes.
The adult male swimmer went missing in the late afternoon at Sand Island next to Rooster Rock in the Columbia River Gorge.
Gresham Fire officials said the man was out a ways from the shore, and after a week, the search for his body has not been successful. It could take months to find him.
"It's important that people are honest with themselves about where their skill level is actually at," said Lt. Shane Kooch, a member of Gresham Fire's water rescue team. "Waterways that may seem benign may actually be more challenging than expected."
Gresham officials have been surprised by the number of drownings at this time of the year, because the water is warmer, which usually makes it easier to get out of difficult situations. But other factors contribute to the dangers, such as swift currents, physical hazards like submerged boulders and deep pockets throughout the (Sandy) river.
"As we know with this area it drops off quick — very quick — and the current picks up," said Lt. Anthony Foster with Gresham Fire. "It's hard if you're not a very good swimmer."
American Medical Response provides trained lifeguards that patrol the Sandy River during summer months at Glenn Otto Community Park in Troutdale. There are no lifeguards on duty at other public access beaches along the Sandy, but there are free life jacket stations available at the Oxbow beach.
"Whether you're a child or an adult, these rivers are not a pool, and it's important to wear life jackets," Foster said.
Gresham firefighters said wearing a life preserver is the most obvious way to prevent drownings — though in their experience it tends to be one of the most difficult pieces of advice for people to follow.
"Ego, peer pressure, wanting to be the 'tough guy' — it all gets in the way of making a good common-sense decision," Kooch said. "Life vests save lives."
'The safest thing'
Dan Johnson, a river rescue technician with American Medical Response, could not agree more. Working patrol at the Glenn Otto Park on the Sandy as well as on the Clackamas River, he can make as many as 20 assists on a hot, busy day at the beach.
"On slower days, we can pick out problems ahead of time," he said. "Unfortunately not everyone wears a shirt that says 'I can swim' or 'I can't swim.'"
When no one's in obvious distress, he and fellow lifeguard Zach Green approach families to encourage swimmers — especially kids — to wear life jackets.
"We try to make first contact," Johnson said. "We'll say, 'Hey, we've got life jackets here. We'd love to see your kids in 'em.'"
Fortunately, many do take his advice if they're not already taking part.
"We've got a couple hundred jackets up there," he said, pointing to the lifeguard storage box. "On a hot day, they'll al be gone."
At Oxbow, a few miles upstream, having life jackets readily available is a key safety component at the park's boat ramp, one of many popular spots in the park for water immersion.
"We have a life-jacket stand that was fully stocked on both days we had the tragic incidents," said Susan Baxter Harwell, Metro Parks and Nature superintendent. "We have frequent patrols and our ranger staff (reminding) people we have life jackets available. Really, whether you're a child, an adult, a strong swimmer or not, it's the safest thing you can do."
Noting there is a free land-line phone near the Oxbow welcome center, Baxter Harwell said there are no immediate plans to expand communications options in the park or hire lifeguards for the boat ramp and beach area.
"The last (drowning) incident we had, there was a ranger there who radioed (emergency assistance)," she noted.
Hiring an AMR lifeguard is less practical for the miles of shoreline at Oxbow, Baxter Harwell added, than the concentrated stretch of beach downstream at Glenn Otto Community Park.
"If we had a lifeguard, we would not want people to have a false sense of security and (then) they don't wear their life jacket," she said. "It really is the best solution for swimmers to use them."
River safety tips
Gresham Fire & Emergency Services officials shared several tips to ensure families stay safe while enjoying local waterways.
n Recognize your swimming ability and do not get caught in a river you aren't able to handle.
n Wear a life jacket.
n Be responsible with alcohol consumption.
n Don't tie inflatable gear together when floating the rivers.
n Always have an adult present when young kids are near a waterway.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.