Accident Database

Report ID# 3111

  • PFD Fell Off
  • Swim into Rock or Sieve
  • Does not Apply
  • Cold Water
  • Inexperience
  • High Water

Accident Description

A 51-year-old woman from Newcastle who went "tubing" with her 10-year-old son drowned when she underestimated the power of spring runoff flowing fast and cold down the Bear River.

The death of Cheryl Ann Johnson on Saturday marks the third drowning in local waters so far this spring and is a dark reminder for swimmers and recreationists to use caution when flocking to area rivers when temperatures heat up."The river is up quite a bit. I can't believe they went down there pretty dangerous," said Capt. Art Schreiber of the Peardale-Chicago Park Fire Protection District, who first got the call of a possible drowning at 4:14 p.m.

Saturday.People seeking relief from the heat along area streams, rivers and lakes are reminded that water temperatures will continue to be very cold and to be aware of the dangers of hypothermia," warned the National Weather Service in a special weather statement over the weekend. "Wear a life jacket if you will be in the water and be sure children are wearing a life jacket if they are even near the water," the statement read.

Johnson and her son launched their inner tubes into the water at the Bear River bridge on the Nevada County side of the river, a few miles from the town of Colfax, Schreiber said. The boy's father was to meet them a short distance down river at the Bear River Campground. Johnson, who had reportedly never been tubing before, was caught off guard by the fast water"The water was moving so fast by the time she hit the first currents, she knew she was committed," Schreiber said. Johnson was thrown from the tube and trapped in a rock formation under water where she drowned, according to the Placer County Sheriffs Department. Johnson's life preserver did not save her. "Hers was not secured properly," Schreiber said. The boy was swept down river and kept afloat by his life jacket until he reached the bank, unable to rescue his mother, according to officials.

A man who was gold panning at the rivers edge heard the boy's cries for help and ran back to Highway 174 to find someone to call 911. A group of four young adults tried to help Johnson escape the place in the rocks and rapids where she was pinned, but it was too dangerous, Schreiber said It;s not only high, it's swift," Schreiber said. Eight fire and rescue teams from Placer and Nevada County responded. Some rescuers hiked 1l2 miles along a dirt trail to the place where the woman was caught in the current, Schreiber said.

A dive team from Placer County performed a swift water rescue to recover Johnson's body. She was carried back to the bridge at about 10:30 p.m., Schreiber said.The boy was flown by helicopter to the Peardale-Chicago Park Fire Protection District where he was given medical attention then released to his father. The boy is in good condition, according to Sgt. Brian Whigam of Placer County Sheriffs Department.

POSTED: 11:40 am PDT May 17, 2009 

COLFAX, Calif. -- The lure of a cold mountain river led to a woman's death. She drowned and her young son barely survived in a place where rescuers said they should never have been. It happened near Colfax on the Bear River just downstream from the Highway 174 Bridge Saturday afternoon. Rescuers said it should be a warning for anybody headed near the water. A rescue diver stands over the cold rushing water of the Bear River at the spot where a woman's body was pinned between two rocks.

Downstream lies the inner tube rescuers believe the woman and her 10-year-old son were riding before they fell in. Patrick Carrell and his friends were driving by on nearby Highway 174 when they noticed people frantically looking around. Together they all raced more than a mile down a steep path and tried to pull the woman out. Carrell said he didn't know if she was alive when they first got there. I couldn't even get her head out and then I fell in and floated down for a while and I got out," Carrell said. "He just did everything he could. He almost lost his life trying to do that," said Colfax resident Nick Ortiz. Rescuers said the boy managed to pull himself out of the water. Somebody panning for gold heard his screams and went for help.

A helicopter spotted the boy, another flew him to safety. But for the mother, by the time rescuers could reach the spot where she was trapped, repel down the steep cliff and bring in an inflatable kayak -- it was already too late. "It seems to be unfortunately an annual event for firefighters and law enforcement. people want to go swimming. We need to emphasize safety," said Chris Paulus, with Cal Fire. What's unclear is whether this woman didn't know how dangerous spring rivers can be or whether she decided to take a chance. Crews managed to pull the woman's body out of the river a few hours later.

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