Teen’s daring Johnson Creek dive ends in drowning

Find out why this tragedy could have happened, anywhere along Johnson Creek – from Gresham on into town. And, learn why City and County water rescue crews hope they won’t be involved in this situation again anytime soon …

A member of the Swift Water Rescue Team sprints toward Johnson Creek, after ducking around a locked fence on the Springwater Trail that kept rescuers from driving their rigs up to the scene.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
A high school freshman’s decision to try to swim in Johnson Creek, hours after a rainfall totaling close to an inch, led to his death on Wednesday, June 2.

In the presence of at least two other youth, he jumped into Johnson Creek at the concrete dam, east of S.E. Harney Drive, just off a closed-for-repair section of the Springwater Trail, above Tideman-Johnson Park.

A call came in to the 9-1-1 Center at 7:50 p.m., reporting that a person had jumped into Johnson Creek.

Crews gather on either side of the dam as they begin to plan their swift-water rescue strategy. Note the high, churning water of the usually docile Johnson Creek.

“The call first sent us to S.E. 21st Avenue and S.E. Harney Street,” reported Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) spokesman Lt. Allen Oswalt. “Because of the coordinates of where the call came from. I’m speculating that someone at the scene called home – and that person then called 9-1-1 from a landline at that address.”

Portland Fire’s fire crews shortly reached the right spot on Johnson Creek, followed by their dive team, with mutual aid from Clackamas Swift Water Rescue. Because the westbound Springwater Trail was blocked with a locked, heavy chain-link fence, crews had to park in the trail’s lot, and then sprint to the dam, about 300 yards distant.

This young man he and others reached down, using their bicycles and with sticks, in an effort to help save the youth who jumped into the raging water.

Off the main trail, at the dam, three BMX-styled bicycles were stacked to the side. An ashen-faced young man sat with his hands on his head while he talked with police and fire officials.

The water flowing over the 15-foot high concrete and stone dam, a 1940s WPA project, was muddy, deep, and swift.

The anguished young man, later identified as witness Kevin Boell, said he and others at the falls were incredulous that another youth said he was going to jump in. “He just dove right in,” Boell said.

Another witness told officials that kids often jump into the water below the dam during the summer time, because it’s deep at the base of the falls.

Emergency crews from both Portland Fire & Rescue and Clackamas Rescue probe the muddy, rushing water with long poles and drag lines, while rescue divers suit up.

When the boy came up the first time, he was gasping for air, witnesses said. The second time they saw him surface, while being tumbled in the churning water below the falls, his lips were purple. “We grabbed our bikes and tried to hold them down [to him] so he would have something grab onto,” Boell related. “He went down for the third time, and was under the undertow. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

While the Swift Water Rescue teams set up at the dam and waterfall, firefighters and police officers started searching the creek, walking downstream for several hundred yards – hoping to catch a glimpse of the victim in the muddy, churning water.

A PF&R crew member makes sure their rescue diver’s equipment is secure, before he challenges the roiling rapids below the Johnson Creek dam.

About 30 minutes after the call came in, PF&R divers were suited up and entered the raging water. Support rescue swimmers noted that water below the falls was a “rolling hydraulic” – water that would spin a body as if it were in a drum.

“One diver got in, right up close to the falls,” Oswalt told us. “He was sucked under with terrific force. The force was so great, command ordered use of a tether rope to pull him out; it was clearly too dangerous to have him there.”

By 9:00 p.m., the rescue effort was called off, Oswalt noted, and the operation shifted to being a body recovery effort that continued until about 10:30 p.m.

With one diver in, the second Portland Fire & Rescue Swift Water diver prepares to enter the creek.

“Deputies from the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office began a search this morning,” said the agency’s spokesperson, Lt. Mary Lindstrand on June 3. “But the family had been out looking since 5:00 a.m. The victim’s brother found him before our deputies did, at about 8:15 this morning.”

The victim, whom Lindstrand identified as 15-year-old Shane Estorja, a freshman at Milwaukie High School, was found about 200 yards west of the falls, near the Springwater Trail bridge, where the path enters Tideman-Johnson Park.

“The water level dropped overnight,” remarked Oswalt, who returned to the scene to help with the recover effort. “It’s down about a foot, but it’s still very swift and running high. This is a tragic event. Even the best swimmers don’t stand a chance in the icy-cold, swift waters of creeks and rivers this time of year.”

This deadly situation could have taken place in any number of locations along Johnson Creek, Oswalt added. “There’s no ‘safe place’ to play in or around a rain swollen river, creek or tributary. I sincerely hope we don’t have to go out on another situation like this one in a long, long time.”

A rain-swollen creek is no place to play, rescuers warn.

© 2010 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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