STANISLAUS COUNTY (CBS13) — It’s a tight-knit community that knows the Stanislaus River almost as well as they know each other.
“A lot of us have been guides for many years. Whether it’s swift-water training, guide training, understanding how a river moves,” said David Voortman.
Many of them work on the river or have at least a decade of experience navigating the water with one or both of the two main rafting companies in town: River Journey Adventures and Sunshine Rafting in Knights Ferry.
“I started getting into the whitewater rafting scene about 10 years ago,” said Schott Wucherer. “I had worked for one of the local fisheries doing snorkel surveys. We all know this river.”
When the exhaustive search for the 5-year-old girl who’d been swept away by the Stanislaus River near the historic covered bridge entered into the fourth day, a group of town’s highly-trained river guides and divers decided they needed to get involved.
“One of our guides, Jeff Hall, felt this was something we could help,” said Voortman, owner of River Journey Adventures. “It was his wife who said, ‘If you think you know this river, you should help and do something.'”
Hall then asked the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District for permission to assist in the search.
“We wanted to make sure we worked in conjunction with them; not be in their way,” added Voortman.
On Wednesday afternoon, they joined firefighters and sheriff deputies in the search for Matilda Ortiz. Working in four teams of two, the group started at the location where she slipped on some rocks and fell in.
Dressed in dry suits and snorkels, one person searched underwater while the other kept watch from their boat to ensure the diver was carried away by the current or pulled under by debris.
“That’s what it’s like up here in this community. We help each other and in this situation… it was like family,” said Voortman.
After about two hours of searching in the frigid water, one of the volunteers discovered Ortiz body under two feet of water near the base of a tree. She was located about a quarter mile downstream from where she fell in.
“We can’t help but internalize that because we are human. We are parents and we have sympathy and compassion,” said Captain Jeff Frye with Stanislaus Consolidated Fire District.
Frye said the guides took part in a debriefing along with the fire department.
“Most of us have been on searches before. Most of us have not had to partake in the recovery of somebody and so that’s something we’ll be dealing with,” said Voortman.
The group credited the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers for limiting the flows at New Melones Dam which allowed river levels to drop at least a couple of feet.
“The reason we were out here doing this is because we had a plan,” said diver Scott Wucherer.
Now that regular flows have resumed, the group is urging people to use caution on the water this spring and summer.
“We invite people to come out and enjoy the scenery, but we ask you to enjoy the river from afar,” said Frye. “In 2017, we had a record number of saves on this river. Our conditions this year are very similar.”
The team of volunteers trained in swift water rescues is warning people to check the river levels prior to visiting.
“Call your local rafting companies. If they’re not on the water, you probably shouldn’t be on the water,” said Voortman.
The fire department is also asking families to wear life jackets near the water.
“We have a rule in the fire service that when we operate within 10 feet of a riverbank or lake, that the rescuers must be in protective equipment so when we see families, children, next to the river without any type of flotation device, it doesn’t sit well with us,” said Frye.
Should you fall in without a life jacket, the divers and snorkelers say, “The best thing to do is to get in a defensive position on your back with your feet in front of you” and to float down the river until you find a safe place to pull yourself out.
“A lot of people tend to want to grab onto the trees which is a horrible idea because it creates a strainer which is anything the water moves through and you don’t so it’ll hold you,” said Wucherer.
These are just some of the precautions the group said you should take to keep you and your family safe.
“It’s just making sure this doesn’t happen again by people gaining some knowledge about the river,” said Voortman. “It is a great place to be when the conditions are right and you’re set up right to enjoy it.”
Firefighters said you can borrow a life jacket for free by visiting any Stanislaus Consolidated Fire District Station or by calling to reserve one in advance.