A 6-year-old girl who had gone with an uncle to the Santa Ana River to cool off from Monday's 90-degree heat slipped into the water and drowned despite rescue attempts by the relative and a passerby, authorities said.
The body of Sandra Mendez, of Anaheim, was found by scuba divers about 50 feet downstream from where the little girl had fallen, in murky water 12 feet deep, according to Battalion Chief Charles Kanenbley of the Anaheim Fire Department.
Kanenbley credited a passerby, John L. Stephens, a 23-year-old ex-Marine, with saving the girl's uncle, Antonio Calzano, 20, of Orange, who had jumped in after his niece although he could not swim.
Stephens, an out-of-work actor from Anaheim, said in an interview late Monday that he was taking a stroll near the river at about 3:15 Monday afternoon when he saw the girl slip.
He ran to the spot, kicked off his shoes and dove in, in shorts and T-shirt.
"I just swam out there, and by the time I got there, the only thing I could see of him (Calzano) was his hand.
"I grabbed it, pulled him to me and dragged him to shore. I went back and bobbed around for her, but the water was too murky. I couldn't find her."
Stephens said he and a companion, Michael Robinson, 26, of Orange, tried repeatedly but were unable to rescue the child.
"It's too bad. I tried and tried, but I couldn't do more. What else could I do?" Stephens said.
The accident occurred in Anaheim, along a spillway surrounded by no-trespassing signs. It is just southwest of Tustin Avenue, near theOrange city line.
The spillway is one in a system maintained by the Orange County Water District that continues along the Santa Ana River from Weir Canyon on the north to the Santa Ana Freeway.
The spillways slow the speed of the river and restrict the natural "cutting" action of the water on its earthen base, said William Reiter, Orange County public works operations manager.
Reiter said, that depending on the drop of the spillway, which could vary from five to eight feet, water can race through during the peak rainy season. He said the water Monday could have been turbulent, and Stephens confirmed that.
"You have to be very stable because the water does go through there at a good clip," Reiter said. "A child walking along would need stability. Apparently, it was enough to sweep her off her feet."
Authorities said the two had ignored warning signs and may have climbed or crawled through a hole in a fence.
Anaheim police did not know the identity of the girl's parents late Monday. Her distraught mother was taken to Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Anaheim but was released without treatment. The girl's uncle was taken to the same hospital; he was treated and released.
Kanenbley said the girl and her uncle had taken their shoes off and apparently were enjoying the cool water as it swirled around them.
When the girl was swept downstream, the uncle jumped in and, at one time, grabbed her. But he had to let go when he started going under, Kanenbley said.
Kanenbley cautioned swimmers about the spillways, saying they are extremely dangerous.
"They have signs all up and down that river, but people don't see them, and if they do, they don't pay attention," he said.
When firemen arrived at the scene of the accident, they ordered the opening of valves to lower the water level downstream.
Meanwhile, scuba divers were flown in from Newport Beach in a police helicopter. The girl's body was discovered about two hours later.