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Lathrop Manteca explores life jacket stands along San Joaquin River
life jackets

Lathrop Manteca Fire Chief Gene Neely said that the San Joaquin River flowing through Lathrop presents the perfect trifecta for tragedy – a combination of water that is moving deceptively fast, that is colder than people expect, and is often entered when people have been drinking.

And while so far this swimming season the district – which employs a fully-trained and staff water rescue and recovery team – hasn’t had any drownings, Neely says that he wants to take a step that could prevent them if the public participates and gets behind the effort.

A lifejacket stand, similar to systems that are used on the Stanislaus and Sacramento Rivers at popular swimming beaches, is what Neely said that he’ll be focusing on this summer to take away the excuse that people who are swimming in the river don’t have them. The self-serve station, which typically have them organized by size, could be funded through a number of programs and placed at Dos Reis and Mossdale Regional Parks and potentially at a popular swimming beach in the River Islands community.

“The hydraulics of water are much more powerful that people think, and while water may appear calm it can be moving much faster just below the surface and doing things that you can’t see with your naked eye,” said Neely. “Just like anything, as it’s moving it encounters resistance – parts of trees, obstacles – and that can create currents that can pull people down and trap them against them and prevent them from coming up.

“Putting lifejackets in places where people can use them is definitely a priority of mine.”

The district got a scare this past weekend when a call came in for a new drowning of a child that turned out to be a child that panicked in the water.

But last week an 8-year-old child in Sacramento wasn’t quite as lucky – just minutes after arriving with his family to enjoy the Sacramento River to cool off, he waded out just beyond the shallow and stepped off of a shelf and disappeared into the cold, fast-moving water. His body was discovered hours later near where he entered the water – going under just 10 feet from the shore.

District personnel did respond to a drowning call in the Delta this past weekend to assist Stockton Fire but never made it on scene after a call came in about a man who had been pinned against a pump once it turned on, holding him underwater. According to social media accounts, the man was trying to get a ski rope untangled from the propeller of a boat, and a massive wake caused the pump beneath him to kick on – sucking him beneath the surface. Multiple people tried to pull him to safety but were unsuccessful.

Neely said that he’s going to spend July working with San Joaquin County interests that manage Dos Reis and Mossdale and will work with River Islands to try and provide lifejackets to a beach near the community that is reportedly popular with residents.

“We need to do some work with the different agencies that manage these areas, but I think it’s something that can be done – there is funding out there for these things, and even if we have to go out of pocket for it I think that it’s worth it if it can save a life,” Neely said. “These tragedies happen quickly, and the conditions make it deadly especially when alcohol is involved, and people underestimate the river and what it’s capable of.

“A child doesn’t understand the strength and they get excited and don’t know what’s going on and they can underwater in seconds – it’s important to have life jackets, and hopefully this will help.”

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.