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The State

4th Death This Year in Kern River

July 10, 2001|DAVID PIERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 35-year-old Panorama City man's disappearance Sunday afternoon in the Kern River, with his family watching helplessly, marked the fourth drowning there in the last 45 days, authorities said.

The deceptively beautiful stretch of river that runs from Lake Isabella to Bakersfield has claimed 214 lives since officials started counting in 1968. Authorities say visitors, mainly from the Los Angeles area, often ignore the signs warning of danger: swift undercurrents, deep pools and jagged rocks.

"You either stay out of the river, wear a [float], or go out in a body bag," said Kern County Sheriff's Deputy Don Rhoades.

Deputies said Jose Alberto Guillen was found face down 2 1/2 feet below the surface. His lower body was caught on a submerged rock, his upper body trapped on rocks above the surface. He was caught by the white-water rapids, Rhoades said.

"There was a big egg on his head from hitting something," said Rhoades, who helps coordinate the mostly volunteer Kern County Search and Rescue team. "After he got sucked in, the chances were slim for him."

To deter swimming in the river, a sign displaying the death toll on the Kern greets visitors to the canyon at the edge of the Sequoia National Forest. A new tally was affixed Monday in the wake of Guillen's drowning.

Nevertheless, the hot summer weather and the river's natural beauty entice many of the nearly 500,000 visitors who flock there to camp, fish and experience water sports. Those who brave the rapids to go kayaking must wear specially designed life preservers, said Bob Addison, director of the county Parks Department.

Such a device might have saved Masuod Mozafri, a 46-year-old Santa Monica resident who slipped off a car inner tube on July 1.

Mozafri, who couldn't swim, spent too much time underwater and died in a hospital the next day, Rhoades said.

On June 27, 25-year-old Michael Magby of nearby Bodfish had a seizure in the water from a prior medical condition. He was found 10 days later, a quarter of a mile from where he was last seen.

The river's first death of the year occurred May 27, when Los Angeles resident Angel Martinez, 32, drowned saving his daughter from a deep-water pool. The family had gone to the river to celebrate the little girl's birthday.

District Ranger Dave Freeland of the Forest Service said the 2,000-foot decline from man-made Lake Isabella to Bakersfield creates a fast water flow. The force of the currents is unpredictable because the amount of water released from the lake varies throughout the summer, he said.

Authorities say there is little they can do to prevent the drownings, other than educate and warn the public of the extreme danger. Many agree that no one should go into the river.

"People just have to respect the river," Addison said. "It's not a river you can go swimming in."

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