Raft drowning victims identified
Bodies of missing teenagers found several miles from start of raft trip
By Hannah Dreier, Contra Costa Times
CONCORD -- Searchers on Sunday found the bodies of two Walnut Creek teens who drowned after going rafting in a rain-swollen creek Saturday. Authorities said that Matthew Miller, 16, and Gavin Powell, 17, both of Walnut Creek, tried to negotiate the water in a two-person inflatable craft when the fatal accident took place. The boys' bodies were found about a mile apart, several miles from where they were thought to have launched. Miller's body was found about 11:30 a.m., near Highway 4 and Imhoff Drive in Concord, while Powell's was discovered at 1:30 p.m. near Stanwell Drive and Bisso Lane in Concord. Search crews found the boys' deflated raft early Sunday near Bancroft Road and Bentley Street in Concord. The creek flows through an underground channel for about a mile, and emerges in that location spot.
Miller and Powell started their rafting trip about 2 p.m. Saturday in a nearby creek, launching their craft near Murwood Elementary in Walnut Creek. The teens had helmets with them, but they did not have life preservers. About 4 p.m., the teens called a friend to meet them at a specific location. They never arrived, and the friend left, assuming that someone else had picked the boys up. Their families reported the boys missing just after midnight. Rescue teams decided to wait till daybreak to begin their efforts because of the dangers of conducting a search in fast moving waters under darkness. Sunday's search involved nearly 100 personnel, including divers and a helicopter who combed the waterways in Walnut Creek and Concord.
During the rainy season, the frigid creek becomes especially treacherous, according to Contra Costa sheriff's Lt. Eric Navarro. "When we had the recent rains, it made the creek swell," he said. "It becomes very fast moving, but what's even more dangerous are the debris that are in the water -- branches, rocks, you can think of any other kind of debris that's in there causing problems and obstructions." Water level varies in the creek and can reach depths of 15 feet in places, Navarro added. The creek is not meant to be accessible to the public and is fenced off in many places.
Julie Miller, Matthew's mother said that her son, a junior at Las Lomas High School, was a good student with various interests. She said Matthew played piano and harpsichord, and was a talented artist. He also volunteered with the Amigos de Las Americas. He went to Nicaragua this past summer to teach computer skills to residents in a small community there. "He was just a nice, great person who was nice to everyone," Julie Miller said. Matthew and Gavin were best friends and had been for many years, she added. They enjoyed biking and hiking together. Gavin's relatives declined to comment. Two people drowned in the creek in April after they lost control of their car and swerved into the water. One of the victim's bodies traveled six miles and was discovered in a spot near where the boys' bodies were found. Officials and volunteers Sunday expressed deep sadness at the teens' deaths. "All of us have done things in our lives that you look back on and think, I got away with one," Navarro said. "I just feel horrible for the kids and for the family."
Gavin Powell (17) and Matthew Miller (16) drowned while trying to pilot an inflatable raft down a stream during a storm
Published: Feb 22, 2011 Gavin Powell (17)
Date: Feb 20, 2011
Cause of Death:
Drowning Location: Concord, CA The search for two Walnut Creek teenagers, who went missing while trying to pilot a small inflatable raft down a stream engorged by this weekend's heavy rains, ended in sorrow Sunday when their bodies were pulled from the water. Wearing helmets but not life vests, the boys - Matthew Miller, 16, and Gavin Powell, 17 - apparently got in a blue and yellow raft about 2 p.m. Saturday near Murwood Elementary School in Walnut Creek.
The city and the creek that runs through it share the same name. About 80 volunteers joined Walnut Creek police officers and Contra Costa County sheriff's deputies in searching for the boys, scouring local waterways. An East Bay Regional Park District helicopter flew overhead. But by early afternoon Sunday, the raft and the bodies had been found miles downstream, near Buchanan Field Airport in Concord, where the creek runs north toward Suisun Bay.
Investigators do not yet know how the boys ran into trouble but said debris may have punctured the raft. "We don't suspect foul play," said Lt. Eric Navarro of the sheriff's office. "It's just another very tragic accident." The boys were juniors at Las Lomas High School in Walnut Creek, said classmate Miranda Lenore, 17, who knew Miller since second grade and had a history class with Powell this year. She said the two were best friends, matching each other in energy and wit. When Lenore's history group would study in a corner of the classroom, Powell would "dance and skip his way back to his seat - it was so funny." "He and Matt were geniuses," Lenore said. "Gavin was one of those kids you could have seen going to Harvard."
The two were also a bit eccentric, Lenore said. Powell, for instance, used to visit friends in his neighborhood wearing a bathrobe. When Lenore first heard the pair had tried to negotiate a stream during a storm, she was shocked. "But then I thought, of course they would do something a little reckless," she said. "I could picture them doing stuff that other high school kids would never think of doing." According to Navarro, the pair had told people they were going rafting on a nearby stream or aqueduct Saturday. A friend was supposed to meet them at a designated pickup spot about two hours later, at 4 p.m. But the boys didn't show, and the friend left after waiting for roughly an hour.
Shortly after midnight, Navarro said, the families of the two boys contacted authorities to report them missing. Authorities tried to search for the teenagers, Navarro said, but found that the water was too high and moving too fast amid the heavy storms.
After daybreak, the search resumed and turned up an ominous sign. About 8:30 a.m., searchers recovered the deflated raft near the intersection of Bancroft and Bentley streets in Concord. Three hours later, farther north, searchers pulled Miller's body from an area between Imhoff Drive and Highway 4 in Concord. Then, at 1:30 p.m., Powell's body was found near Stanwell Drive, also in Concord. At a news conference in the afternoon, authorities said the creek's depth can vary from 2 feet during dry weather to up to 15 feet in storms, with a fast-moving current. In many places, police said, it is crowded with brush, debris, rocks and branches, which could have punctured the raft. Navarro said that in 26 years on the force, he's never heard of anyone using a raft to brave the creek.