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Near-Drownings Red flag River’s Hidden Dangers

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013 | Posted by



James Polumbo, 30, Evan Severe, 31 and Manakai Polumbo,



It almost happened again on Mother’s Day. And it’s not even summer yet.

Hayley and Art Severe, their daughter Taylor, son Evan, son-in-law,  James Polumbo and grandson, Manakai Polumbo were basking in the natural beauty of the Monte Rio beach when a cry went up – a mother on the beach had lost sight of her son – and was screaming for help.

Two boys estimated to be between the ages of 6 and 10 had been playing on a  berm off shore and when they stepped into the water (which was inches deep near the berm)  they silently disappeared. No time to cry out or wimper. They were there and then they were gone.

Hearing the mother’s call for help, 30-year-old James Polumbo looked up and seeing a child flailing in what was described as a trench, immediately rushed into the River to help him.

A cry went up from beach goers who had witnessed this and Hayley’s son, 30-year-old Evan Severe saw a second boy, boy #1’s companion, also caught up in the current, and unable to swim, going under the the River’s surface. Evan managed to extract boy #2 and helped him onto the beach.

Meanwhile, boy #1’s mother, near hysteria, rushed over and retrieved her child and    without

Muff Curtis, Steve Baxman and Gabriela Gibson

a word, headed off down the beach.

People on the beach were weeping, Hayley Severe relates, some seemingly in a state of shock,  keeping their own kids close to them and being especially watchful.

Some were so distraught they packed up their things and left, while Severe and her clan wrapped boy #2 in towels and tried to calm him  until a  parent or guardian showed up – but no one ever did.

Evan and James, sick to their stomachs, and trying to catch their breath, were attempting to calm down when they noticed  two other boys on “floaties” (which were described as inflatable noodles) approaching the same raised patch of wet sand.

Art and Hayley Severe at daughter’s wedding

Unbelievably, they watched as almost the same thing happened.

Again, the two young men plunged into the current and James grabbed boy #3 and dragged him to the beach. Meanwhile, boy #4 went under and Evan did his best to help the boy, described as about ten years old and weighing 120 lbs. to safety. The panicked boy grabbed Evan around the neck and Evan unsuccessfully tried to shift his position and get a better grip, but  James had to plunge back into the River and help Evan save boy #4.

The people on the beach were crying and visibly upset and some six men, some carrying floatation devices, rushed into the River to help James and Evan. Evan would like it pointed  out that these men should be commended for their heroic efforts.

During all this time, it was reported, there was not a life jacket in sight.

During this second rescue, boy #2 wandered off up the beach, apparently, by himself.

Hayley and her family waited for boys #3 and #4’s  parents to show up, but they were nowhere to be seen.

Severe’s daughter, Taylor,  called the sheriff’s substation, and telling them the tale, assured them the kids were safe. According to Hayley Severe the sheriffs advised Taylor to call the press.

After the second rescue, almost everyone on the beach packed their things and decided to spend the remainder of Mother’s Day elsewhere.

After awhile,  the children had calmed down and set off toward the parking area to find whatever parents might have been waiting for them.

This and similar scenarios play out far too frequently along the lower River and unfortunately, there isn’t always someone nearby to save those being claimed by the River.

Monte Rio’s long time fire chief Steve Baxman said he went down to the beach on Sunday afternoon after being notified and he believes the problem isn’t so much the River, as the fact that parents aren’t paying attention to their kids. He advised that signs will be posted in English and in Spanish warning people of the potential danger, and also said he may visit the beach on Sunday and remind people personally of the importance of being more vigilant.

The Press Democrat also spoke with veteran volunteer fire, search and rescue person, Muff Curtis, who herself is a mother of nine, and she expressed dismay and frustration at the frequency with which such incidences occur.

She spoke of the Monte Rio volunteers’ effort to retrieve the body of a person who drowned last year, when they notice two young people approaching them in the River who subsequently had to be rescued themselves. She said that there are subaquatic “shelves” which people unknowingly step off, finding themselves in water that they find too deep to deal with.

In a Press Democrat article last July 26 by Julie Johnson and Kevin McCallum, it was stated that 2012 drownings on the Russian River had taken the lives of the following:

Tuesday: Antonio Jimenez Garcia, 20, of Santa Rosa drowned at Sunset Beach.

Monday: Eduardo Nery Corona, 13, of San Francisco died a day after being pulled unconscious from the water at Steelhead Beach.
July 15: Margaret Hinsdale Pometta, 50, of San Mateo died after suffering a heart attack while competing in the swimming portion of the Ironman 70.3 Vineman Triathlon at Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville.
July 7: Coretz Holmes, 54, drowned in a large pond at Riverfront Regional Park, which is adjacent to the Russian River west of Windsor.
May 20: Juan Moreno- Garcia, 27, of Santa Rosa drowned at Steelhead Beach

Relatives with Drowning victim recovered from River

after slipping under the water while wading.

Asked last year about his take on all this, Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman stated, “I am really saddened by it. It should not happen.” Baxman, has been part of the Monte Rio fire and rescue squad for more than 40 years. Rescuing  people and helping those who have been injured or in danger is his raison d’etre. “I don’t know the answer.”, he says,  “We put signs out. People too young are dying.”

Says Russian Riverkeeper, Don McEnhill, “Drowning is preventable, 100 percent preventable,” The executive director of the nonprofit Russian Riverkeeper, McEnhill added,  “What more can we do? What can we do to keep this from happening?”

Muff Curtis, who has been a volunteer in Monte Rio for many years says there should perhaps be buoys or markers around the most potentially dangerous spots. For awhile there was a roped-off area designated a relatively safe place to cool off in the water, but no such apparatus has made an appearance yet this year.

The fact that non-swimmers insist on cooling off in the the River’s waters and that people who are liquor or drug impaired feel invulnerable doesn’t help either.

Those who rent out kayaks and canoes are aware of the danger but all they can do is warn people that things are not always as they seem – and remind them that wearing a life jacket is mandatory as well as good sense.

There have been signs in both English and Spanish placed in strategic places along the River which caution in red letters in English and Spanish: “River Warning — Advertencia.”

But people apparently don’t pay attention or don’t take the notices seriously.

EDITOR: The cause of the Russian River drownings isn’t the river but people’s lack of understanding of the importance of swimming (“Russian River dangers,” July 26). As children, we were required to learn how to swim before we could go into the river unattended by an adult swimmer. These days, there are too many adults in the water who don’t know how to swim.

While shallow in spots, the river bed has many deeper spots, and you can expect to take a dunk at any time.

 Jordon Berkove, Guerneville,  August 6, 2012 

The following poll appears on the Guerneville.Towns home page and we would appreciate it if you shared your opinion.


      Don McEnhill, executive director of the nonprofit Russian Riverkeeper says drowning in the Russian River is preventable, “100 percent preventable,”

Do you agree ?

1. Yes

2. Most are but not all

3. There should be more signs and safeguards

4. No. People aren’t informed or cautious enough

  • suzie RJ

    A sign stating, “If you don’t know how to swim, do NOT go into the water”….there are dangers lurking.

  • Linda adams

    What kind of parent is it that drops their child off to play in A dangerous too river and leave them??

  • Michael Kiesling

    The Editor’s Note (at the bottom of the post) says it all. I started swimming lessons at age 3 in pools at resorts around Guerneville every summer. Besides swimming skills, people need to know that wherever they want to jump into the river, from a tree, dock, ropeswing, boat, log… scour and swim EVERY inch of that portion of river before your first jump or DON’T JUMP!!!! The river is great fun, but it’s not a placid bath or pool, even though it often looks like one.

  • Terry Katzman

    I nearly drowned at the Russian River and it had nothing to do with my swimming abilities. The river is full of undercurrents, and they can drown the strongest swimmers in very shallow water.

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Stephen Gross, The River correspondent

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