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Rescuers pluck man from turbulent Spokane River

UPDATED: Fri., April 6, 2012, 3:48 p.m.

Members of the Spokane County Marine Patrol head north on the Spokane River near Mission Street as they conclude their search for a reported second person in the river, April 6, 2012.  Earlier, emergency crews pulled a man out of the water in the same area. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Members of the Spokane County Marine Patrol head north on the Spokane River near Mission Street as they conclude their search for a reported second person in the river, April 6, 2012. Earlier, emergency crews pulled a man out of the water in the same area. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane’s water rescue team pulled a man from the turbulent Spokane River this morning near Mission Park in the third water search and rescue effort in the region in a week.

One man died, one is still missing and two were rescued, including the incident today.

Authorities say it is a bad start to what could be a long spring runoff season.

Last year, more than two dozen people died on Pacific Northwest waterways in a variety of accidents during the high water period that will likely last until July again this year.

“We are hoping people stay out of the river,” said Deputy Craig Chamberlin of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s just dangerous, extremely dangerous.”

In today’s incident just before 8 a.m., a man whose name was not given was spotted clinging to submerged bushes and woody debris about 20 feet from shore, too far for rescuers to reach from land, said Fire Battalion Chief Dave Haworth.

About the same time, the department’s water rescue team raced from their station at North Foothills Drive and Nevada Street to a launch site just upstream at Upriver Drive and Crestline Avenue.

The man was in the river just south of Mission Avenue near a BNSF Railway bridge.

Haworth estimated that it took about 10 minutes for the rescue team to get their boat to the scene. The man had been able to remain standing, and the boat crew pulled him from the river and took him to shore.

He was conscious and yelling and said that another man had gone into the river with him, Haworth said. Medical personnel described the patient as “delirious and frantic.” He was taken to a hospital for treatment.

Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said that the man appeared to be under the influence of drugs, according to Associated Press.

Crews searched the river for several miles, but found no sign of a second person.

Haworth said it was not clear how the man went into the river, but indicated that the area is frequently used by transients for camps.

The Spokane River flow on today was a foot below flood stage due to record March rain and lower elevation snow melt. The volume was measured at 26,200 cubic feet per second. Normal flow for April 5 is 10,400 cfs.

“It’s running hard and it’s full,” Haworth said.

Farther downstream, authorities spent Monday and Tuesday in a full-blown search of the river from Spokane Falls to Nine Mile Dam for a Fairchild Air Force Base airman who had not been seen since he left for a canoe trip on Saturday at Riverside State Park.

James Adam Ramse-Lassiter, 26, remained missing today. The search has been scaled back, Chamberlin said.

He said searchers, including volunteers, ran the river and walked the banks, but found no trace of him or his water craft.

His truck was found in Riverside State Park.

Chamberlin said it is possible that the high flow basically swallowed the airman and his belongings.

He said the main rapids at Bowl and Pitcher and Devil’s Toenail are running as extreme class-4 rapids, so treacherous that even experienced river runners should stay away.

The canoe, he said, “That would eat it alive and it would be on the bottom.”

On Sunday, Gonzaga University student Christopher J. Gormley, 18, died after his kayak capsized on a wind-swept Rock Lake in northern Whitman County.

He was part of a GU outdoor program trip involving seven people, including a guide from the Spokane parks and recreation department.

Two other kayakers went into the water during the accident just before noon. One kayaker swam to shore and the other man survived following a rescue effort.

Gormley died after being taken to a Spokane hospital with what appeared to be hypothermia, authorities said. Air temperature at the time was 34 degrees, and the water is extremely cold.

The National Weather Service that day had issued a wind advisory for the northern Palouse region, and the forecast on Sunday morning called for wind gusts of 40 to 45 mph.

Rock Lake is notorious for having large and dangerous waves when it is windy, and what makes the lake more treacherous are the sheer cliffs on either side of its 8-mile length.

Whitman County Undersheriff Ron Rockness said an investigation into the incident is continuing, but he acknowledged that the waves were high that day.

“It’s known for storms blowing in all of a sudden and becoming terrible,” he said.

In addition, the lake has submerged rock formations that can puncture a boat hull, making the lake a place for experienced recreationists, Rockness said.

Two fishermen was rescued from the lake in February after their boat motor struck rock and flipped their small aluminum craft and sank. They had to reach for cushion flotation devices after being dumped.

The recent incidents underscore the need to use caution and learn the dangers inherent with water activities, even walking along the bank, officials said.

Accidents, by their nature, are unforeseen and may be aggravated by panic.

Last year, authorities attributed one death to a bank collapse and another to a person trying to rescue a dog from moving water.

Public safety officials warned this week that no one, especially children, should go in the river or even approach the river’s edge. Slipping on a rock or stump could send a person into an icy, watery trap.

The water is so cold and so swift that chances of survival for more than a few minutes are slim. Hypothermia can immobilize muscles quickly or cause someone to gasp in water.

People also are being advised to stay away from flooded bike and walking paths, including a stretch of the Centennial Trail just upstream from today’s rescue site.