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Lifeguard Dies in River Training : Tragedy: Pacific Beach man, a nine-year veteran of lifeguarding, was swept under a fast-moving river while training with the esteemed river rescue unit in Idaho.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A member of the San Diego lifeguards’ esteemed river rescue team was killed while training with fellow lifeguards in a fast-moving river north of Boise, Ida., authorities said Tuesday.

Michael D. Knight, 27, was swept under the waters of the rocky Payette River and was trapped by underwater rocks and logs Monday afternoon, officials said. Even though a teammate saw him disappear, the water was moving so swiftly that rescue attempts into the evening were unsuccessful.

His body was finally recovered Tuesday afternoon by his teammates after getting scuba tanks to aid the search. The balance of the nine-member team was scheduled to return to San Diego today.

Knight’s was the first on-duty death among San Diego lifeguards, City Manager Jack McGrory said.

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Knight, who was single and lived in Pacific Beach, became a seasonal lifeguard in 1982 and had risen through the ranks to win a place on the daring rescue team this past summer, Lifeguard Capt. Chris Brewster said.

“It would be hard to explain how hard everybody is taking this,” Brewster said. “He’s not just a face in the crowd. He’s been a lifeguard for nine years. He was absolutely dedicated to a career in lifeguarding.”

The River Rescue Team had arrived at the white-water river, strewn with boulders and bordered by pines and firs, Sunday to undergo a weeklong training exercise in preparation for possible rescues in San Diego this winter.

The team was assembled in the late 1970s in response to heavy flooding in San Diego’s river and flood-control basins that resulted in several deaths. As recently as this past March, the team was credited for making several rescues during heavy rainfall that swelled the San Diego River and other local waterways.

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According to Valley County (Ida.) Undersheriff Larry Olson, who went to the scene and conducted his own investigation, Knight was atop a boulder in the middle of the 30-yard-wide river about 4:30 p.m. Monday, wearing a wet suit and carrying a rubber flotation device. As water swirled about him, Knight boarded his belly board for yet another float down the river to practice getting in and out of fast-moving water.

“As he got on the board, the water swirled back and sucked him under the surface,” Olson said. “He apparently got sucked under very quickly.”

He didn’t surface again and could have been knocked unconscious by a rock, Olson speculated. His body was found trapped in a configuration of underwater rocks and logs just 20 feet downstream but not visible from the surface. The obstruction is called a “strainer” because it allows water to pass quickly through it while blocking larger debris.

Olson said that Knight would have had to fight the surge of water against him to escape--if he was even conscious at that point.

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Brester said the team had been practicing all day in the river, “which was fast-moving and strong, specifically what they look for in training.”

“At least one lifeguard saw him in the water just before he was sucked under. It happened very quickly.”

Word of the accident got back to San Diego Monday night, and, on Tuesday, McGrory released the news to the City Council.

Knight was most recently assigned to the Mission Beach lifeguard station. He was recently elected vice president of the San Diego Lifeguard Assn. and was voted by his peers one of the top six rank-and-file lifeguards of 1991. On a force that numbers about 220 lifeguards during the peak summer months, Knight was one of 65 who worked year-round.

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He earned a place on the River Rescue team after attending--on his own time--a five-day course in river rescue in July, McGrory said.

“Mike was a very gregarious individual, very well liked by the other lifeguards,” Brewster said. “He was in very good physical condition.”

Knight is survived by his father, Dan Knight of Parachute, Colo.


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