Hanging out at their tranquil Kern River campsite, the three South High School sophomores suddenly heard people screaming.
In moments, Ryan McLernon, Sean Hamilton and Sebastian Gutierrez found a crowd gathered on the banks above the other side of the river, pointing downward and looking to the teenagers for help.
“We saw there were people in the water,” Ryan said. “One of them was face down, not moving at all.”
During the next few minutes May 28, the 16-year-old friends’ Memorial Day weekend rafting trip in Kernville turned dramatic and heroic.
“It was pretty rough,” Sean said. “The water was moving really fast. It was about 40 degrees, too.”
That weekend, many vacationers who headed for rafting trips along California’s surging rivers found treacherous conditions fueled by a record snow melt. Over Memorial Day weekend, three people died and 24 people were rescued along the Kern River.
The runoff has created dangerous rapids that caught some people by surprise.
For the boys, the rushing rapids were fun. It was safe. And it didn’t seem too dangerous, Ryan said.
But for a family of five and their guide, it nearly turned deadly.
“They hit the big rapids going sideways and the raft turned over,” Ryan said. “They all went flying out of the raft.”
Reacting to the pleas for help from the other side of the river, Sean — a Boy Scout — called 9-1-1 and grabbed his cardiopulmonary resuscitation mask and emergency supplies in his backpack. The boys jumped on their bikes and rode across a bridge to the other side of the river.
Sean and Ryan hiked down from the steep cliff overlooking the water, making their way along trails toward the bottom, where they helped the couple’s sons and the guide onto the banks. Sebastian directed his friends safely down to the water, then helped the sons making their way up the steep banks, pointing out where to climb and reaching out to grab their hands to pull them to safety.
The father and mother were still in the frigid water, each clutching onto branches. The mother, however, lost her grip, turned over and began floating face down along the river.
‘Thank you, thank you’
Ryan made his way to the father, grabbed hold of his life jacket and pulled him out of the water.
“He just kept saying, ‘Thank you, thank you,’ over and over,” Ryan said.
The guide, meanwhile, got to the mother with Sean and pulled her to safety. Sean’s CPR mask and an emergency blanket were immediately put into use. She was quickly revived.
Up top, Sebastian took charge when one of the couple’s sons, believed to be about 17 years old, went into shock after Sebastian helped the teen to the top.
Sebastian sat next to the teen on a rock, put his arm around his shoulder and let the teen lean against him with all his body weight so he would not pass out.
“I comforted him for like 15 minutes and helped him breathe,” Sebastian said. “He was just saying, ‘Where’s my mom and dad, where’s my mom and dad? Are they going to be OK?’ ”
Rescuers take over
Sebastian said he told him to relax, to breathe and put his hands over his head to try to calm himself down. Paramedics arrived, and Sebastian told him they would soon know if she would be all right.
The rescuers took over, taking the family to a hospital.
Ryan, Sebastian and Sean went about the rest of their weekend trip with a story to tell their friends when they got back to school. It took a while, Ryan said, for what had happened to sink in. It hit him the next day.
Said Sean: “It felt pretty good, but it was a little scary, too.”
No one ever exchanged names, so there has been no contact since. For Sebastian, it didn’t matter. He was just glad to help.
“I felt really like a good sense of self-worth and accomplishment,” Sebastian said. “I felt nice and warm and like I did something good for someone else.”
This story originally appeared in www.dailybreeze.com