Did county emergency responders fail Lake Nacimiento drowning victim?

July 19, 2016
Nacimiento Lake

Nacimiento Lake


As one of the first responders to the scene on July 10 at Sandy Cove, I would have to disagree with the way the article portrays the rescue efforts for this young man. What I saw was a very slow and unprepared response team.

The intention of this letter is to request a review of the search and rescue procedures for Lake Nacimiento and to have a new protocol put in place to prevent any other needless drownings.

This is my account of the slow and under prepared, under equipped rescue efforts:

As I was hiking back down to the cove, I heard screaming and obvious urgent distress. When I arrived, there was a woman crying and screaming on the other side with her son next to her. There were several bystanders on the banks watching and two girls on the beach side that were screaming and crying. One of whom was the daughter of the man who drowned. The other, the daughter of the crying woman across the cove.

A couple of campers were in the water diving and looking for the man who had gone under. One of my friends was on the rocks up high trying to sight the body. I jumped in the water to help with the search. Then another friend arrived and started diving as well.

Five minutes later a ranger arrived on land fully dressed and without any diving gear. He jumped in and started searching too but without gear, there was no chance to find somebody in the deep, muddy water. Diving equipment was necessary.

Another five minutes passed as we all tried desperately knowing someone’s life was at stake. Then the ranger boat arrived with two rangers on board and there was hope that a rescue was about to occur. There was still time to save this mans life.

Instead, what transpired is still haunting me. When the rangers arrived in the cove, there didn’t seem to be any urgency. One ranger took his shirt off as if he was going in but when he was told it had been 10 minutes or so, he never entered the water. It was like resignation.

Neither of the two rangers ever got out of the boat. Still no “dive team” or search and rescue efforts. I don’t understand how a ranger boat on a lake doesn’t have any equipment to aid in potential drownings? This is what needs to change.

Meanwhile, the four or five of us kept diving. The ranger in the water performed a “line” search performing all he could without the proper gear. Oxygen tanks, masks, lights, fins, and sonar equipment would have potentially saved this mans life.

It took another 30 to 45 minutes before a helicopter arrived and the sheriffs arrived on land. No diver was lowered into the water from the helicopter and no divers entered the water from land.

These rescue efforts were slow, inadequate, and ill equipped at best. The article portrays the “efforts” very differently. Unfortunately, that won’t call any needed attention to the changes that need to occur! It leads people to believe that all efforts were made, status quo will continue, and so will, no doubt, lead to more drownings.

The divers arrived after about an hour and a half later only to recover the dead body from the bottom of the lake. It only took them a few minutes to find the body because he was at the bottom right where he went down. If dive equipment had been present at the rangers arrival, the man would most likely be alive today.

I urge those responsible and in a position to change the protocol to do so immediately before another fatality occurs.

For now, I will not return to lake Nacimiento because I realize that if an accident occurs, and they do and will, that there is no chance of a successful rescue with the procedure the way it is now.

Thank you in advance for your thoughtful consideration and attention to this matter. Change needs to occur. I hope this letter will help facilitate change.

Kim English is a Carmel resident who has vacationed at Lake Nacimiento since she was a child and was camping with a group of friends when the drowning occurred.

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If you are as familiar with the lake as you claim, than you should rethink your response. Granted, it was well written and well thought out but not grounded in specific knowledge of the lake. First of all, I am sure that the officer who was first on the scene rushed to the scene. If this person was there within minutes, then unless they were already either by the store or the Ranger Station, they pushed the bounds of safety. The resort is a large site – to get from Quail’s Roost Campground to Sandy Point Beach, even with lights and sirens, can take a few minutes. Secondly, as another person commented, this lake is considered a “Black Lake” which requires specialized training and certification of which, only a handful of divers in the county, or even in the state, are \certified for. Thirdly, the Ranger Boat is on the water to patrol THE ENTIRE Lake. If they had to come from the opposite end of the lake, down by the Narrows, or as close to the Narrows as you can get in the current water levels, it still take quite some time to make it back to Sandy Point, even going full throttle and avoiding the lake traffic.

Be thankful that at least there was a Ranger to even respond. Because of budget shortfalls, we are lucky to even have rangers at the lake. We nearly lost them this year because of the budget crisis. There was a proposal to pull them from the lake and reassign them to other more prosperous parks. Who knows what next year will bring – that may become a reality. As it is, there are just a handful of rangers to serve and protect the lake, resorts, and provide support to the surrounding communities. A handful – maybe less than 5 rangers to serve 24/7 365 days a week. So instead of trying to show that they were inadequately provisioned and unprepared, use your voice to demand that the county take a better look at the budgets and provide adequate support to actually be able to staff the lake at the level it deserves. A handful of rangers can not be expected to be on the boat patrolling during the day, taking care of enforcement and other issues in the resort, and providing support functions to the surrounding area. It is just too much for them to physically and emotionally handle, and that puts us in greater peril.

Every single one of these rangers are committed to doing everything possible to saving lives, and put their own lives at stake every day to make the lake and the resort a safe place for you, your family, myself, my family, and everyone one who comes. If you have been visiting on a regular basis since the age of 8, you would know this and see that they do not hesitate to jump into any fray. They are there to protect us. I know, because I have personally seen them jump into situations to save and protect. My family has been camping and going to Lake Naci for years. It is our favorite place to go. So instead of bashing them and saying that they were unprepared for such an event or that processes are inefficient, take a look at WHY there aren’t more rangers, more resources available, and fight for that to change.

It takes awhile for dive equipment to be put on, and I doubt the first responders would wear it all day preparing for a “what if” moment. I am sorry to say that even if the first responders were to have been geared up first thing, I doubt they would have been able to save this man. It doesn’t take but just a few seconds (8 i think) to go unconscious and then another few seconds to drown. Usually it’s longer than that before people realize the person isn’t around and begin to look.

It must have been a shocking and disturbing experience though, kudos to you for your help.

When there are no life guards watching the swimmers, you depend on your buddy for back up. As a child most learn to never go swimming alone, congrats to all that jumped in to help. Drowning in a lake is very common. I can’t think of a public lake that no one has NOT drowned in?

Easy to lay blame on those who did respond, but very hard to actually prepare for in an instant. This type of event plays out on our beaches and lakes every year. Bottom line is no matter how many “real first responders” are waiting and at the ready on the beach just waiting to jump in, “most folks” needing rescue on these types of drowning incidents have two very important factors involved, alcohol and lack of swimming experience. Until everyone takes responsibility for their own well being and use common sense when alcohol has been consumed, and to assure each member of the family knows how to swim. OR, stay out of the water…

Great job by all LEO and first responders…

I grew up on Lake Nacimiento and Lake San Antonio. I also worked summer jobs on the lakes for the county while in college. I have also experienced the same scenario you just experienced. I dove for a drowning victim to no avail. It haunted me for a long time. The thing you have to realize is that you did your best, and no amount of rescue equipment and trained personnel could have saved the man. You did not cause the situation, you were there to help, which you did.

The other part of this equation is that you put yourself at great risk diving for this man. There are a great many hazards like trees and other debris that can entrap you making you another victim. Scuba diving the lakes is a whole different scenario. As a certified scuba diver, I have dived the lakes with the best equipment. I will never do it again. Even with the brightest light, the turbidity in the water is so high, the light doesn’t leave the lens. This is extremely dangerous as you are unable to read your air pressure gauge and time piece, see what is around you or even tell which way is up. Everything you do is done by feel. I know experienced cave divers who will not scuba dive the lakes.

Training the rangers in Scuba, would not have saved this man, even if they arrived on the scene fully suited up and ready to dive. It still takes time to set up and execute a search pattern. This is typically done with at least two people. One in the water diving on a rope tether, sweeping with a long rod, while the other is on the bank holding the rope letting the diver extend his search pattern after completing a sweep.

Please find peace with the fact that you did everything you could to save this man.

Well said. Excellent response.