The bodies of a young Santa Rosa man and a teenager from Texas on vacation were pulled from the Russian River in separate incidents over the weekend. They were the first and second to drown this summer season in the waters where thousands gather each year to splash, swim and escape the heat.
On Saturday afternoon, Edgar Mejia, 23, of Santa Rosa squeezed into a kayak with his brother, although the vessel was only built for one paddler, and it capsized, Sonoma County sheriff’s officials said. Mejia had no life jacket and his family told authorities he didn’t know how to swim. Still, he entered the water alongside hundreds of other summertime revelers at the beach at Casini Ranch Family Campground on a wide and slow stretch of the river near its confluence with Austin Creek.
The next day, Jaime Ticas, 17, a Texas boy visiting his relatives, was swimming off a dock at the Guerneville Lodge but stayed behind when the group decided to swim further upstream, a sheriff’s spokeswoman said. He was gone when they returned but his sandals and wallet remained on shore. A crew with an underwater camera with the Russian River Fire Protection District eventually found his body in about 10 feet of water about 40 feet from shore, the Sheriff’s Office said.
“I’m devastated,” said lodge owner Al Cooper. “That boy came here and didn’t leave.”
Drownings along the Russian River, which cuts a winding path through the heart of Sonoma County on its way to the Pacific Ocean, have decreased in recent years following an effort by the county’s regional parks department, firefighters and the Sheriff’s Office to provide swim and safety programs with lessons, free life vests and warnings.
Twenty-nine people have drowned in the Russian River while swimming, wading and playing in the water since 2000, according to Press Democrat archives. No one was reported to have drowned under such circumstances last year.
The river will continue to be a big draw this week as warmer weather returns.
On Saturday, the beaches at Casini Ranch near Duncans Mills were packed with people lounging on beach blankets, picnicking under tents and families splashing in the water. All the ranch’s 225 camp sites were booked and the day use lot was full by 10 a.m., general manager Alan Ginos said.
Mejia arrived with a family group of about a dozen people Saturday morning to spend the day. They brought a kayak.
Playing in the water nearby, Rudi Skowronski, 15, of Alameda said he saw a man running down the beach and heard him yelling but was not sure what he was saying.
“He came back with a floaty tube around his waist,” Skowronski said. “That’s when I realized there was something going on.”
The man was shouting for others to call 911.
Skowronski joined a cadre of people in the water looking for Mejia. The river at the ranch’s main beach remains shallow for perhaps 50 feet before a drop-off near the opposite bank. Skowronski said he was bringing Mejia’s kayak to shore when others in the search pulled the man’s body from the deep section of the river.
Although cellphone coverage is spotty in the area, someone placed a 911 call at about 4 p.m. A sheriff’s deputy happened to be at the ranch already checking into a prank 911 call from a pay phone and quickly took over CPR from bystanders, Ginos said.