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THE SAFETY ZONE | Spotlight

Swift Current, Swifter Death

With the rainy season upon us, rescue officials renew their warning that rivers and stream beds fill fast with churning, forceful water.

November 20, 2000|LOUISE ROUG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The two boys who drowned last month in Long Beach when they fell into the Los Angeles River provide a grim reminder that the swift-water rescue season is upon us.

But while much of the attention is focused on large tributaries such as the Santa Ana and San Gabriel rivers, fire officials said that smaller creeks and storm channels actually pose as great a risk--if not a greater one.

The network of narrow concrete drainage channels that crisscross the county are particularly hazardous because they fill rapidly with heavy rain and produce powerful currents.

"The force of the water will sweep you off your feet, and you can get thrown up against the bridge abutments or get caught up in debris," said Capt. Paul Hunter of the Orange County Fire Authority.

Another hazard along the channels: low-head dams.

"They create a churning effect, and you can get sucked into it," Hunter said. "It would be very difficult to get out. They're a little like whirlpools . . . and will actually hold a person in there."

The deaths of elementary school students Derrick Ashe and Ray Wells when they fell into the Los Angeles River in October have reignited a debate across Southern California about whether there is too much public access to rivers and streams.

Over the last two decades, officials have increased access along both the Los Angeles and Santa Ana rivers with bike trials, parks and other recreational facilities.

Advocates of more public access, including environmental groups, say additional precautions are necessary, including well-placed warning signs and security fences higher than the current 5 feet.

"It's real easy to get in. I've even seen people in the river when everything was supposedly locked down for a storm," said Joan Greenwood, a member of the board of Friends of the Los Angeles River, a conservation group trying to restore the waterway.

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Most large rivers in the area--including the Los Angeles and Santa Ana--have gates in most stretches. But Greenwood said it's easy to get past them and that more warning signs would be helpful.

Fire officials, however, believe education, parental advice and announcements in the news media are perhaps the most practical measures, given the drive to open the waterways more to the public. But they stop short of saying what the best solution is for parents.

"Kids need to be warned, yet kids are kids and parents can't always be there 24 hours a day," said Mark Boone, the chief of lifeguards for Long Beach. "Grab any child and they'll tell you that they are not supposed to go in the river, but you turn around and there they are. I just don't have the answer."

Orange County has five Swift Water Rescue Teams located in Irvine, Mission Viejo, Buena Park, Placentia and Seal Beach. These firefighters have been trained to perform a variety of rescues and are only minutes away in the event of an emergency. The team has conducted roughly 10 rescues in the last year; more occur in years with heavy rainfall.

The fire authority's helicopter is also available to assist in any type of emergency created by flooding. Helicopter 41 can be on the scene in a matter of minutes.

Perhaps the most dramatic case was the drowning of 15-year-old Adam Bischoff, who was swept to his death in the rain-swollen Los Angeles River in 1992. Dozens of potential rescuers who chased him from bridge to bridge could not save him as he hurtled by at speeds as high as 35 mph.

Adam's death prompted improvements in lifesaving techniques, including the creation of Los Angeles County's swift-water rescue team. Film of his plight also became part of a 20-minute video called "No Way Out," which is shown annually in public schools.

Several of the most recent water rescues--and tragedies--have occurred in south Orange County and involve natural dry riverbeds.

In 1995, a young Mission Viejo boy fell into the churning current and drowned while trying to cross Trabuco Creek tethered to a rope.

"Being in any waterway is very, very dangerous. . . . You can drown very easily," said Hunter of the Orange County Fire Authority. "One, you may be overwhelmed by your inability to swim in the water. Two, it can be very cold. Three, you can get entangled in debris, or four, you may be floating in the water and run into the concrete abutment."

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Times staff writer Dan Weikel contributed to this report.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Treacherous Waters

* 1991: Four homeless people seeking shelter from the rain under a Santa Ana River overpass were rescued after the rushing river swelled around them and trapped them on a concrete platform.

* 1995: A fifth-grader fell into the churning current and drowned trying to cross Trabuco Creek tethered to a rope. Rescue teams found the boy's body a mile downstream at the northern edge of O'Neill Regional park, just east of Mission Viejo.

* 1995: An eighth-grader in San Juan Capistrano tried to jump a narrow culvert near San Juan Creek during a storm. But he lost his balance, fell into the creek and was pulled underwater into a tunnel and, eventually, to Dana Point. He yelled to a passerby who alerted a crew of county workers, who rescued the boy.

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