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Spate of drownings spur officials to spread river safety awareness, with stress on wearing lifejackets

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Luke Burkhardt has worked as an AMR lifeguard for four years. Hundreds of families looking to beat the heat recently, were enjoying an evening float down the Sandy River in the cool waters.

Then, tragedy struck.

A 7-year-old girl, who is remembered by loved ones as having a shining smile and a knack for making others laugh, had her innertube flip. As she struggled, her father jumped into the water to try and save her, downstream from Dabney State Recreation Area outside of Troutdale. Despite his efforts, both father and daughter drowned Tuesday evening, July 20.

"This weighs heavy on all of us," said Sheriff Mike Reese. "Losing a child, let along two family members in a moment, is unimaginable."

COURTESY PHOTO: GOFUNDME - Jenni Fernandez-Suarez, 7, and her father Erislandy Fernandez-Sanchez, 42, both drowned on the Sandy River. Erislandy Fernandez-Sanchez, 42, and his daughter Jenni Fernandez-Suarez were the third and fourth victims of drowning on the Sandy River this July. As their family and the community mourns, officials are trying to improve river safety.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the family during this extremely challenging time," Reese said.

While the Sandy River is a great way to get through this historic hot weather, it remains a dangerous waterway for even the most experienced swimmers.

"Four drownings over a short period of time is alarming on any river," said Chris Liedle, with the MCSO Communications Unit. "We are working with our partners to increase water safety messaging and continue to expand outreach to swimmers."

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - The Sandy River has proven deadly this season, with four people drowning within the last 30 days. The Sandy can be deceptive as it lazily flows past the beaches at popular destinations like Glenn Otto Community Park and Oxbow Regional Park. But unlike the Columbia and Willamette rivers, the Sandy is primarily glacial runoff from Mount Hood, meaning it is colder, faster moving, and has a rocky bottom.

In the spring and summer months, with rising temperatures, rapid snowmelt causes unpredictable fluctuations in water level and river speed. Often the water becomes discolored with sand and silt, making the bottom hard to see. The river winds and has many blind turns, making it hard for inexperienced people to know what is coming around the bend. There are also drop-offs, large holes and turbulent currents.

"These are all dangerous characteristics, and will challenge even the strongest, most capable and experienced swimmers," Liedle said.

And the situation has been exasperated by what has been the busiest season on the river in more than two decades, thanks to the loosening of pandemic restrictions and astronomical heat.

"We want people to go enjoy the river, and then return home," Liedle said.

Deadly month

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - American Medical Response has a strong presence at Glenn Otto Community Park in Troutdale. The four drownings on the Sandy weigh heavily on first responders, who often find themselves conducting recovery missions due to the time it takes to arrive on scene.

The first drowning was 21-year-old Jose Pascual, who was swimming at Dabney State Park on June 29. He disappeared in the late afternoon, and searchers struggled to find the body due to dangerous conditions on the Sandy.

A week later, on Saturday, July 10, 33-year-old Jose Marcelino Castillo-Pacheco drowned while swimming at Oxbow Regional Park. As he was struggling in the water, several bystanders helped get him onto shore, and two park rangers attempted CPR as first responders arrived at the park. He was later pronounced dead at the hospital.

And finally, the attempts to find Fernandez-Sanchez and his young daughter on July 20, led to more than an hour combing the river.

The Multnomah County Sheriff's Office learned about the pair struggling around 8:23 p.m. They found both near the Stark Street Bridge.

"We sincerely need your help to be safe this summer," Reese said, referencing the rash of drownings. "We urge everyone in or near the water to wear a lifejacket and swim at a park where a lifeguard is present."

In all four drownings on the Sandy, none of the swimmers were wearing a lifejacket. That is something first responders said would have prevented the tragedies.

Kiosks are installed at the boat ramps of many of the parks along the Sandy, including Glenn Otto Community Park, Oxbow Regional Park, Dodge Park and Dabney State Park. The lifejackets are free to borrow, as long as swimmers return the devices at the end of the day.

A lifejacket should be a snug fit, but not so tight a person cannot move.

Patrolling the river

COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF TROUTDALE - The AMR lifeguards helped identify a dangerous snag in the Sandy River that was snaring even those wearing lifejackets. No one knows the Sandy better than the men and women trained to keep families safe — and when something goes wrong they are quick to react.

Earlier this season, American Medical Response lifeguards noticed strange changes in the current at Glenn Otto Community Park, where they are stationed from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily during the summer months through Labor Day, Sept. 6.

Then a swimmer wearing a lifejacket got sucked down and trapped underneath a mammoth snag that was wedged near Pilot Rock, just before the river flows underneath the Halsey Bridge.

"Even with lifejackets swimmers were getting stuck," said Luke Burkhardt, who has served as a lifeguard for four years.

So the AMR lifeguards worked alongside the city of Troutdale to remove the dangerous snag.

The only place with lifeguards along the Sandy River in East Multnomah County is Glenn Otto Community Park. The program began in 1999, was put on hold last year with the pandemic, and returned this season. The presence of AMR river rescue technicians — colloquially lifeguards — has drastically reduced drownings at the park, even as usage skyrockets.

Between Glenn Otto in Troutdale and High Rocks Park in Gladstone, AMR has already performed more than 150 assists, a record number at this point in the season. Lifeguards also can direct families to the safest areas of the river, help fit lifejackets and warn about any changes in the current.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Life jackets are available to borrow at most major spots along the Sandy River.  That kind of presence at Glenn Otto contrasts with Oxbow and Dabney, where there are no lifeguards. All four recent drownings occurred at those locations.

"Lifeguards can respond within seconds and are trained in advanced medical care," said Liedle, who used to work as an ocean lifeguard. "Seconds count when it is someone in distress."

Metro Regional Government, which oversees Oxbow, has no current plans to station lifeguards along the river. There is a lifejacket kiosk, and two emergency phones to call for help in a place where cell coverage is spotty.

Many others recreate on the water off unmarked stretches of the Historic Columbia River Highway, where there are fewer bystanders to provide emergency assistance and no lifejackets to borrow.

And when there are no lifejackets, or lifeguards, the Sandy River has proven deadly.

"Wear a lifejacket, stay out of strong currents, look before you jump in, and always swim with a buddy," Burkhardt said. "Keep an eye on your kids and stay safe."


Family members have started a GoFundMe to help with funeral expenses for Erislandy Fernandez-Sanchez and Jenni Fernandez-Suarez. Donate on GoFundMe

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