Dangerous waters: Coast Guardsman drowns in Trinity River
Sean Garmire/The Times-Standard
A 27-year-old Coast Guardsman was pronounced dead Wednesday afternoon after drowning in the Trinity River during what Coast Guard officials reported was an off-duty swimming accident.
A McKinleyville resident and recent father, Seaman James A. Salac traveled to Kimtu Beach along the Trinity River near Willow Creek with three of his friends, two of whom are Coast Guard employees, said Coast Guard Group Humboldt Bay spokesman Lt. Russ Merrick.
Deputy Coroner Roy Horton, who interviewed the three witnesses Thursday, learned Salac had attempted to swim across the river, but was likely overcome by the cold and the current.
The witnesses told Horton it was around 80 degrees in Willow Creek when they arrived, and the group all waded into the river. But upon discovering the water was cold and the current was moving swiftly, they decided to get out.
”It was hot and they all got in the water,” Horton said. “They were splashing around, but decided it was too cold.”
A large rock across the river from Kimtu Beach provides a popular sunning area where swimmers often jump into the Trinity River during the hot summer months. Horton said Salac was familiar with the swimming area, and in an effort to get to the rock, he walked upstream and began swimming across, intending for the current to pull him downstream as he crossed.
As Salac swam, he entered the middle of the channel and was quickly pulled under water.
”He wentunder, then came up again and made a sound,” Horton said. “Then he went down again and that was it.”
At 4:53 p.m., just after Salac disappeared in the current, his friends called 911, alerting authorities to the emergency. A Coast Guard helicopter was quickly deployed and arrived on scene, while Humboldt County Sheriff's Office deputies responded on the ground.
Salac was located downstream at Big Rock, nearly a half-mile away, Horton said. According to Merrick, Salac was pulled from the water just over 40 minutes after the 911 call was made.
Salac was flown to St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka, where he was later pronounced dead.
Alcohol is not considered a factor in Salac's death, Horton said. A toxicology report is pending.
According to Merrick, Salac is survived by his wife, Jaena Salac, and his 6-month-old daughter Jaeda. His wife was visiting family in the Philippines with their daughter when she received the news Wednesday night.
Merrick said the Coast Guard is sending a local employee and friend of Salac's to escort his family back to Humboldt County.
According to Merrick, Salac was a Coast Guard cook, but as a graduate of Coast Guard training, he was a proficient swimmer and underwent water survival training courses.
”He was physically fit and in shape,” Merrick said. “What he was dealing with yesterday -- swift, cold water -- there are so many other forces that came into play.”
Tom Haltom, spokesman for the California Water Sciences Center, said the Trinity River was around 56 degrees on Wednesday. The water, he said, was flowing at around 4,500 cubic feet per second -- more than four times the rate of flow from August through November of 2008.
Horton said when swimming in water as cold as the Trinity River's, a swimmer can become hypothermic “in a matter of a few minutes.”
A memorial fund for the Salac family has been set up by the Coast Guard. For more information, contact Merrick at 839-6114.