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Two men drowned last week while swimming in the Columbia River; authories offer safety tips

PMG PHOTO: NICOLE THILL-PACHECO - Law enforcement responded to the Willow Bar area of Sauvie Island on Friday, July 26, when witnesses reported seeing man go underwater while swimming. The man was later identified Justin Carlo Cruz, 26, of California, who was visiting the area. Two people drowned last week while swimming in the Columbia River in Columbia County and Multnomah County.

On Friday, July 26, multiple law enforcement agencies responded to the Willow Bar area on Sauvie Island around 5:45 p.m. when a man swimming was reported to have gone underwater. Several people tried to help him, but were unable to reach the man in time.

The man was later identified as Justin Carlo Cruz, 26. Authorities said the man lived in California and was vacationing in the area.

The Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, Oregon State Police, Scappoose Fire District, Clark County Fire, the Columbia County Sheriff's Office and Sauvie Island Fire and Rescue all responded to the scene to assist with a search in the area for the man.

Divers were unable to locate the man Friday night, and resumed searching for him on Saturday morning. No updates have been provided by MCSO's office, but information from other law enforcement agencies, have presumed Cruz died.

Just outside of Columbia County, several hours later, at 10:04 p.m., the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office responded to another call near Kelley Point Park in North Portland where another swimmer had gone underwater on Friday night.

Authorities recovered the body of Carlos Lara-Escudero, 22, of Portland, about an hour after they arrived on scene. An investigation into the drowning is still ongoing.

Kelley Point Park is located just north of Portland where the Columbia and Willamette Rivers converge.

Tips for water safety

While many people choose to cool off and enjoy the rivers in the summer, authorities remind the public to be aware of water conditions in order to stay safe.

St. Helens Police Department Sgt. Jose Castilleja reminds residents to be cautious near docks and not to swim near them. While water may be calm on the surface, underneath it's a different story. Strong water currents flowing through the pilings that hold up docks can make the water very turbulent.

"If you get caught in that, even the strongest swimmer can't overcome that," Castilleja said.

Local parks that offer access to water, like Pixie Park in Columbia City, are great places to spend time in the summer, but undertow and sub-surface currents can still be dangerous.

Castilleja recommends that parents always go into the water with their children, and try not to venture beyond knee-high water to be safe. Using the buddy system is always a smart idea too.

If you get in an emergency situation, call 911.

"Even if your cell phone is out of minutes, 911 will almost always work," Castilleja said.

For anyone making plans to paddle, float, or boat on the river, the Columbia River Kayaking club recommends informing someone of your departure time, estimated return time, the route you plan to travel, and detailed information about your watercraft. This information can be helpful for search and rescue crews.

When temperatures outside are high, water in the rivers can often be warm on the surface, but much colder underneath. A sudden plunge into the water can cause a gasp reflex of trigger hyperventilation, or cause you be disoriented, information from the Oregon State Marine Board indicates. If you become submerged without a life jacket, treading water can help you stay above the water and stay warm until help arrives.

Oregon State law requires everyone on a boat to have a life jacket on board, and children under the age of 12 must be wearing life jackets when boats are moving.

River currents and tides ebb and flow, and boats, tankers and cargo ships that use the river can also cause dangerous wakes for swimmers and boaters, according to information from the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership.

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