A man died in the Santiam River Sunday while he was inner tubing as part of a group of seven adults and an unspecified number of children.
The group put into the water at the Santiam Rest Area on I-5 on their way to a planned pickup at Buena Vista Ferry on the Willamette River, when a cell phone in a waterproof case slipped from its holding place and began floating away. The man, whose name is being withheld until his family is notified, swam after it.
“Everything was going perfectly fine at first,” said his friend Hannah Anderson in reporting by the Statesman Journal. Anderson noted that he had not been drinking any alcohol, nor had any other member of the group. Some of the inner tubes had been tied together for safety, and had become tangled in the branches of a fallen tree.
The drowned man’s tube was not tied into the group, so he paddled his tube to the side of the river to wait while the others disentangled themselves. While they were extricating themselves, some of their gear fell into the water and began drifting downstream. The man saw the phone case floating downriver and dove in to retrieve it.
“My aunt’s phone got washed away in its waterproof case,” Anderson said. She saw the drowned man “standing on the bank and [he] saw the phone and jumped in after it. I screamed at him ‘No,’ but he was the type of person that cared about other people and wanted to help.”
Anderson said the man seemed to become caught in an undertow, and thought his long dreadlocks might have weighed him down as he tried to escape from the water.
“All I could hear was him screaming ‘help,’ and then a muffled sound and he didn’t come back up,” Anderson said. “I wish I could’ve saved him, but I couldn’t get to him, the water was too fast.”
Anderson said the man had recently moved to Oregon from Nebraska four months ago.
“We had kind of become his family,” Anderson said. “It’s very hard. It was just a freak accident.”
Efforts to rescue the man, and then to retrieve his remains, were carried out by the Marion County Sheriff’s Deputies, the Albany Fire Department, Jefferson Fire Department, Linn County Sheriff’s Office Dive Team, and Benton County Sheriff’s Office Marine Patrol.
Data from 2016 to 2018 shows 189 people have died from drowning in Oregon.
Tips to Stay Safe on Oregon’s Rivers and Lakes
Readers of the Advocate who plan on tubing, swimming, or boating, or even just picnicking by the riverside, should keep in mind that a river is always a source of danger and should never be treated casually. It takes only a moment’s carelessness to be lost under the water.
Wear a life jacket. Be careful if you tie your inner tubes together. Wear sun block so you don’t burn. Wear shoes. Stay hydrated, but don’t drink from the river. Don’t drink alcohol or consume other intoxicants while you’re on the water. Keep your CPR and life support certification up-to-date.
And as this unfortunate incident should especially remind us all, don’t take phones or other valuables – they will tend to distract you. Just take a disposable camera to immortalize your trip, one you won’t mind losing if it falls in the river. You can still share the memories.
John M. Burt