A fun family outing turned tragic on Sunday afternoon, March 17 when a young girl slipped on some rocks and fell into the rushing Stanislaus River at Knights Ferry.
The incident, which occurred just before 5 p.m., happened near the historic covered bridge and the five-year-old girl was swept away by the fast-moving current.
She was identified by family members as Matilda Ortiz, 5, who was at the river with her father, Roberto Ortiz, of Patterson. Family members said she stayed with her father on the weekends and lived in the Oakland area during the week with her mother, identified as Marissa Vasquez.
Her father was one of those who went into the river after her, with others on scene also joining in the attempted rescue, only to get in trouble themselves because of the cold, fast moving water.
Emergency crews searched for several hours on Sunday and were back on scene Monday and again on Tuesday but the girl had not been located as of press time late Tuesday afternoon.
The original call on March 17 came in just before 5 p.m., according to information provided by the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department.
Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District was dispatched to the water rescue as well, responding to a call of nine people in the river unable to get out. All the subjects went in to assist; one was caught in a tree and was rescued by fire personnel. Others that went in to assist made it to shore by themselves or with help, leaving just the five-year-old girl unaccounted for.
Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department Public Information Officer Lt. Anthony Bejaran said the search effort was extensive, continuing until dark on Sunday, when it was too dangerous to keep boats on the water. It resumed early Monday, with the effort also including searchers along the river banks, UAVs – drones – in the air and a number of boats in the water.
“Our helicopter was up on and off throughout the day as well,” Bejaran said of the Monday search effort. “Deputies were searching both sides of the river bank, we even had a call that she may have been spotted at Jacob Myers Park in Riverbank.”
Deputies were dispatched to that scene but did not find anything, said Bejaran.
The initial search effort started just a little east of the covered bridge and continued westward into Oakdale along the river, past Lover’s Leap.
Bejaran said while there was consideration given to utilizing the sheriff’s department dive team, the decision was made not to because of the conditions.
“The water is moving at just over 4200 cfs (cubic feet per second) and the temperature is just under 50 degrees,” Bejaran said. “It’s a lot of dark water with a lot of debris under the surface.”
Hope for finding the 5-year-old alive dimmed once she wasn’t located on Sunday; authorities admitted the effort moved in to more of a recovery mode than a rescue.
The high water level will mean dangerous conditions along the river for the foreseeable future; signs posted at various locations indicate extreme caution should be used and those going into the river do so at their own risk. There are life jacket loaner stations at several spots along the river but with the water temperatures as cold as they are and the river moving as fast as it currently, authorities advise against anyone going into the water.