The fun mini-vacation was winding down. It had proven to be the perfect little get-away for the tight-knit “family” of seven - one, it turns out, that would always be remembered for an unforeseen and horrifying tragedy.
They had enjoyed swimming in the hotel pool, playing in the waters of Bass Lake, and relaxing while simply hanging out together.
Before heading home to Merced last Thursday, they sat down for breakfast burritos made by friend (and adopted “grandma”) Maria Santos, 60.
The night before, Mini Hernandez and her friend, Octavio (Tavo) Cervantes Mendoza, 33 and 31 respectively, had gone to buy groceries, but returned with much more - photos of a nearby waterfall.
Mini had visited that particular waterfall many times as a child, before homes were built in the area. And she couldn’t resist one last adventure - taking her children Sussy (14), Amado (12), Natalie (8), family friend, Issac Roman (16), and Santos to the falls before heading back to Merced.
March 24 was a warm, spring morning when the three adults and four children hiked to the Fresno River, just below Lewis Creek.
They sat mesmerized by the sights and sounds of the waters crashing below. Then, Mini decided to have Sussy snap a photo of her standing on the bank with the waterfall behind her.
Mini stood up on one of the gigantic granite rocks and in a split second, just minutes before 11 a.m., a fun, carefree family outing quickly turned to panicked chaos when Mini slipped over the edge into the icy waters below. Mendoza instantaneously jumped in after her.
“The waterfall was beautiful, but we didn’t realize how dangerous it was,” Santos said. “After Mini fell in, Tavo gave me a quick glance before jumping in after her ... I could read his look - a look that said ‘I need to jump in ... I need to hold her,’ and then he was gone, too.”
Santos and the four children ran to the road, screaming for help, while trying to get phone signals. They knocked on nearby homes, but no one answered, so they moved up and down the road trying to get cell phone reception.
They would connect with 9-1-1, then lose the call, and have to adjust where they stood to reconnect.
Not being from the area was another obstacle. They knew they were on a road with a waterfall, and that was about it, so Issac ran to read the closest road sign.
Once emergency crews began arriving, and Santos had somewhat calmed the children, reminding them that prayer was their best course of action, she, still visibly shaken, hiked back to the river to check on the rescue efforts, while the children reassured each other.
Comforting hugs, and petting puppy Toby seemed to alleviate fears somewhat. They talked about how scared they were, and how frightened their mom and friend must be. Amado sat barefoot on the hood of their locked vehicle, having offered his tennis shoes to Sussy. In her race for help, she had left her sandals behind near the river.
The extensive rescue operation took about two-and-a-half hours. Emergency crews had a difficult time getting the two out of the water, due to the powerful force of the water pinning them against rocks, and the steep rocky bank along the water’s edge.
By diverting the raging waters using sandbags, rescuers were able to pull Mini from the water at about 1:30 that afternoon. She was suffering from extreme hypothermia due to water temperatures estimated in the 20s.
She was brought up the river’s 80-foot tall west bank in a Stokes litter, and was taken by Sierra Ambulance to nearby Batterson Heliport, where SkyLife transported her to Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno.
“When they pulled Mini out, I saw that she was moving and shivering, so I knew she was going to be okay,” Santos continued.
Relieved, she turned her attention to her other friend.
“Just when I was about to ask about Tavo, someone told me I needed to get back to the children, and I just knew. I said, ‘you can tell me,’” and then Santos heard those excruciating, painful words ‘ ... he’s gone.’”
Santos, grief-stricken and heartbroken, knew she had to stay strong for the children, even though inside, she wanted to scream and cry.
“Tavo was a hero. He jumped right in after Mini, and he hung on to her, protecting her, while the water kept beating him against the rock,” Santos said.
After his body was recovered from the water, the car keys were retrieved from his pocket, and Santos told the children they were heading home.
When they asked about their friend, Santos reassured them that Mendoza had been pulled from the water, but was badly injured, and required medical attention.
It took every ounce of strength she had to keep it together during the nearly two-hour drive home. It was only after the children were safe with Mini’s brother, that Santos could finally release pent-up anguish and grief.
“I kind of adopted Tavo as my own - would worry about him if he came home late ... and now, he’s never coming home again.” Santos barely got the words out between sobs.
Mendoza had moved in with Santos just 45 days ago. He had no family here, and hadn’t seen his mother, who lives in Mexico, for a couple of years, so considered Santos his “other” mom. Santos added that Mendoza and Mini had even spoken about getting married one day.
She didn’t tell Sussy the truth until much later, when she asked what really happened.
“I could see the same look in her eyes that I must have had when I said it was okay to tell me,” Santos said, “and so I told Sussy he had died in the water.”
Sussy said, “I kind of figured that.”
“Tavo and your mom were falling in love,” Santos told the teenager.
“I kind of knew that, too,” Sussy said, giving her grandmother a loving hug.
Santos said Mini, who remains hospitalized with a broken leg, broken toes, and back injury, is now aware that her close friend is dead.
According to Santos, along with her physical pain, Mini suffers from pangs of guilt knowing that he had died trying to save her.
Struggling and coping with the loss herself, Santos told Mini that she needed to let the guilt go, that she needed to get well, and that her children needed her.
“Tavo was a great guy, a good person,” said Santos, who has known him for about two years. “I’ve been crying all night because he’s not coming home ... and his mother has received the worst news any mother can ever receive.”
Nearly 30 first responders, including CHP, Cal Fire, Madera County Fire Department, Sierra Ambulance, the Madera County Sheriff's Office, and the Search & Rescue team were on scene.
Yosemite Lakes Park security assisted by bringing sand bags, filled by Mount Bullion Conservation Camp prisoners. A Fresno Sheriff’s Office helicopter also responded and remained in the area in the event that they could assist.
“This tragic incident is a reminder of the potential dangers in our waterways,” said Bill Ward, sheriff’s department public information officer. “While the scenery is often beautiful and inviting, people must remember that the fast moving water can be very lethal. Along with the danger of drowning, the incredible force generated by the water can easily thrust a person into large rocks and other objects knocking them unconscious, and the water is often cold enough to cause hypothermia in a short amount of time.”
According to the Madera County coroner, Mendoza died from hypothermia. He leaves behind three young daughters.
Note: For additional photos, see sierrastar.com