Juan Carlos Armenta Madrigal gave his life Wednesday evening to save his son from drowning in the chilly water of the Columbia River at the Umatilla Marina.

The boy survived but Madrigal, of Umatilla, did not. He was 35.

The boy is a second grader in the Umatilla School District, and has a sibling in the district in fifth grade.

Umatilla Police Chief Darla Huxel said an officer at 7:12 p.m. received the emergency call to respond to two people drowning at the marina.

Madrigal, his wife and 7-year-old son were fishing on the northeast corner of the property, Huxel said, a popular spot where two culverts allow the Columbia River to flow into the marina.

“That’s right in front where the current comes in the marina,” she said.

The water there is too deep to stand in, she added, and lately the McNary Dam, about a mile upriver, has released a lot of water, making for a swift current.

“You can definitely see the current going through there,” she said after visiting the site again Thursday morning.

The boy slipped and fell into the water, and the father jumped in after him. Neither knew how to swim, Huxel said, and they were not wearing life jackets.

Madrigal tried to heft his son out of the water, but the flow moved them along the marina. Several other people nearby jumped into the river to help.

They dragged the father and son to nearby docks, where fire and rescue personnel worked to revive Madrigal, but to no avail. He died at the scene.

Huxel said the son went to Good Shepherd Medical Center, Hermiston, for treatment of hypothermia. She did not have an update on his medical condition.

Recent outdoor temperatures in the area have reached the 80s, but online data from the Fish Passage Center shows the average daily temperature of the Columbia River at McNary Dam is 49.3 degrees.

There have been a few drownings on the Columbia River in the past several years. Last September, an Irrigon man drowned at Warehouse Beach while showing some colleagues how to swim. And in summer of 2015, two Morrow County teens drowned in the same stretch of the Columbia River, a month apart.

Sheriff’s deputies said the cold temperatures of the water can often catch swimmers off guard, especially on hot summer days. The cold water can lead to cramping, which can leave even an adept swimmer unable to move. Fast currents and wind can also surprise swimmers and tubers.

After the 2015 incidents, Umatilla County Marine Patrol Sgt. David Johnson recommended the “reach, throw, and go” approach for helping someone struggling in the water: try to reach the person with a tree branch, throw in a buoyant item like a cooler or an empty jug, and go and call for help.

Above all, he recommended wearing a life jacket in the water.

Huxel also said shore anglers generally don’t wear life jackets, but the best practice is to wear the personal flotation devices while on or near water. Umatilla Marina and RV Park assistant manager Edi Devine said the park has children’s size life vests that visitors can use for free.


Daniel Wattenburger contributed to this story.

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