A Merced man in his 30s died after attempting to save his female friend, who had slipped and fallen into the Fresno River near Hidden Falls Road Thursday at about 11:30 a.m.
The extensive rescue operation was underway for more than two hours. Emergency crews were having a difficult time getting the two out of the water, due to the creek flowing at a dangerously powerful speed.
The man’s name is not being released at this time, pending notification of next of kin.
Mini Hernandez, 32, who got close to the river bank to take a photo of a waterfall, slipped and fell into the river, and her friend jumped in after her. The two clung to a rock to prevent being swept away by the rushing creek waters.
Hernandez was rescued from the water at about 1:40 p.m., and suffered hypothermia due to water temperatures estimated in the low 20s. She was safely brought up the river’s west bank, a rocky embankment about 80 feet, placed on a Stokes litter, and was taken by Sierra Ambulance to Batterson Heliport, where SkyLife transported her to a valley hospital.
The group of three adults and four children were visiting the area from Merced, enjoying some time at Bass Lake during Easter break. On their way home, they decided to stop to see the waterfall near Hidden Falls Road in Oakhurst.
“It was beautiful, but we didn’t realize how dangerous it is,” friend Maria Santos said.
Once her two friends fell in the water, she and Hernandez’ children (Sussy, 14, Amado, 12, Natalie, 8, and their friend Issac Roman, 16) ran to the road, screaming, crying, 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 a signal. They would connect with 9-1-1, then lose the call, and have to adjust where they stood to complete the call.
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 road sign.
Once emergency crews began arriving, and Maria had calmed the children down, reminding them that prayer was the best thing they could do, she, visibly shaken, hiked back to the river to check on the rescue efforts, while the children comforted each other.
Sussy reassured her little sister, Natalie, that Mom would be okay.
“When she slipped, we thought she was playing around,” Amado said, cupping puppy Toby on his lap.
The children couldn’t wait to see their mom, to hold her close, and hug her “warm,” and then hoped to get home, as “far away from waterfalls” as they could possibly get.
Nearly 30 first responders, including CHP - Oakhurst, Cal Fire, Madera County Fire Department, Sierra Ambulance, the Madera County Sheriff's Office, and the Search & Rescue team were all at the scene.