YOSEMITE – A fun family outing turned deadly last weekend when a Simi Valley teenager perished in the Merced River while trying to save his parents from the same fate in Yosemite National Park.
Ranger Scott Gediman confirmed that Walter Gonzales Jr., 17, died from drowning on Sunday, Mar. 23.
The Gonzales family was visiting the popular swimming area Devil’s Elbow on the Merced below El Capitan. Walter Jr.’s mother Carmen waded into the river and was quickly overcome by the frigid temperature of the swift-moving water.
Carmen was swept under, and her husband, Walter Sr., went in after her. Walter Sr. quickly found himself overwhelmed by the river, as well, and that’s when the couple’s eldest son went in after both of his parents.
Walter Jr. was able to push his mother and father out of the river but was caught in a whirlpool and unable to get out in time to survive. Bystanders recovered his body from the river and attempted resuscitation, to no avail.
The incident was reported immediately to Park officials who arrived on the scene to find the young man already deceased. His body was taken from the park via ambulance to the Mariposa County Coroner who confirmed, following an autopsy, that the young man’s death was due to drowning.
Temperatures on Sunday were sunny but still cool, and river temps remain in the high 40s to low 50s. Park officials continue to urge visitors to be extraordinarily careful around the water at all times, during any time of year, regardless of what the conditions appear to be.
“It’s still deceptive,” explains Ranger Gediman, “It seems calm, and we’ve had a fairly dry year, so the river level is not that high. It’s still very cold and swift. We ask that people use extreme caution at all times.”
Walter Gonzalez, Jr. was a student at Royal High School in Simi Valley. A vigil was held on Wednesday, Mar. 26; more than 1,000 people turned out to honor Walter’s memory.