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Ripon fire, police comb river for possible drowning victim
A Ripon Consolidated Fire Department rescue boat is seen checking the shoreline 600 yards south of Highway 99 on the Stanislaus River Tuesday morning where an empty raft and life vest were found. - photo by Photo Courtesy Sgt. Steve Merchant

RIPON — A search and rescue effort on the Stanislaus River Tuesday morning was a textbook example of two departments – working closely together – responding in unison to locate a suspected downing victim.

A 911 call was received by an emergency dispatcher about 10:30 a.m. claiming a rafter had been seen floating face down in the fast moving river current with his hands in the water and his feet hanging off the back of his flotation device.  

The search effort would last some two hours before it was called off at about 12:30.

The Ripon Consolidated Fire District responded to the scene with two rescue boats, almost immediately entering the water near the Highway 99 Bridge.  Ground units including one with Fire Chief Dennis Bitters with several emergency vehicles drove under the foot bridge just north of the freeway and checked out the shoreline.  

Within minutes of his call-out, First Sgt. Steve Merchant had hooked up the department’s powered parachute “Air One” to his truck and drove it over to Mistlin Park that is used as an airfield.  He was up and flying in little more than 12 minutes heading across town to the river.

Firefighters located a partially deflated raft on the shore about 600 yards south of the freeway bridge with Merchant then flying numerous low level runs over the river from the bridge to beyond Caswell Park and back.

Caswell Park was notified to be on the lookout for a rafter, but there were no rangers on duty Tuesday morning.

Police volunteers drove a four-wheel utility unit down the narrow dirt road that paralleled the river south of the Jack Tone Golf Course staying in radio communication with Air-One to check out suspected sightings in the river.

While the only thing they found was a submerged green raft, the emergency response was intense.  Sgt. Merchant credited the way the two departments work together with their separate resources for the City of Ripon.

Merchant added that the police department had not received any missing person’s report and he hoped the witnesses account was not factual and that they didn’t have another drowning in the river.