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Search For Oakhurst Man In Merced River Unsuccessful, Second Man Swept Away

YOSEMITE — It has been one week since an Oakhurst man was swept away in the Merced River in Yosemite, and searchers have been unsuccessful in what would soon become a recovery effort.

The man has been identified by friends as Ernie Hager, 60, and on Saturday, June 11, searchers were called away from those efforts when a second victim — whose identity or place of residence has not yet been released — drowned in the river.

The unidentified man reportedly entered the water near Happy Isles, and after being swept downstream and submerged for over 15 minutes, his body was recovered.

Ernie Hager of Oakhurst, who disappeared on Monday, June 6, was part of a group that makes an annual trip to the park on the Monday after Memorial Day.

Mat Sands, owner of Oakhurst Online, says he started doing the trip about six years ago with about a dozen friends.

“It’s grown bigger and bigger each year, as friends invite friends,” says Mat, who set up a Facebook event page, but “everyone organizes their own day. It’s not an organized event other than everyone knows a bunch of people who go rafting once a year. All are welcome.”

Mat says this year’s event included about 50 people, down from about 80 who participated last year.

“Some people rent rafts and some bring their own,” he says. “Some carpool together, and people often go off on their own, or separate from the group for part of the day.”

Ernie was not wearing a life jacket, according to Park spokesman Scott Gediman, and when his raft began to deflate, friends offered to help, but he reportedly replied that he had things under control.

Just seconds later, he was swept away downstream and disappeared under the water. He was last seen in the area of Sentinel Beach at about 6 p.m., according to Gediman.

Mat says that although he did not know Ernie personally, “I’ve heard such great things about him from all who did know him and my heart and prayers go out to his family and loved ones.”

The Madera County and Mariposa County Sheriff’s Offices have assisted Park Rangers during some segments of the search.

According to Park officials, the search for Hager has been put on hold until water levels drop enough to expose more of the riverbed. They anticipate that may happen as early as Wednesday.

Officials remind the public that while the water may look peaceful, it can be very dangerous.

During a swift water rescue demonstration in Yosemite a few years ago, Dave Steindorf, director for California Whitewater, warned that the biggest mistake people make is not understanding how powerful water can be.

“Water weighs 8 lbs. per gallon. When we look out at the river today, it doesn’t look particularly high but it’s flowing at about 500 cubic feet per second. That’s an incredible amount of force and you need to treat it with respect.”

“You should treat a river like an interstate, because if you fall in, things happen really fast, whether you’re getting hit by a side mirror on the freeway or you’re getting your breath knocked out of you in the river because the water is so cold,” said Moose Mutlow, swift water rescue coordinator. “Then you’re completely disoriented. It’s the same level of danger and has the same outcome.”

To learn more about how to survive if you ever fall into fast moving water, click here.

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