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Disability advocate drowns strapped to wheelchair in Sacramento River: ‘There was no reviving her’

A disability rights advocate died Monday when she fell into the Sacramento River and drowned as her husband and family frantically tried to pull her from the deep water.

Laurie Hoirup, who was appointed to a state disability council in 2005 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger and later penned a candid memoir, was pronounced dead at a Sacramento hospital, her husband, Jacob Hoirup, told The Times. She was 60.

Hoirup had joined her husband and family for a boat ride on the river, a popular spot to enjoy the 4th of July fireworks. The family’s boat returned to the marina in Miller Park. There, Hoirup was on a ramp connecting the dock and the boat when the boat moved, causing her chair to slip and plunge into the water, Jacob Hoirup said. He quickly grabbed hold of the chair and was pulled in.

“It took me into the bottom,” he said, estimating the water was about 15 feet deep with a muddy floor. “By that time, I got out — I was sucking in water and I couldn’t hold on.”

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After catching his breath, Jacob Hoirup said, he tried to return to the river bottom, but in the darkness he could not find his wife. An additional 10 people joined in the rescue effort and struggled to bring the chair to the surface. Eventually, they lifted the chair up, unbuckled Laurie Hoirup’s seat belt and were trying to get her out of the water when paramedics arrived.

Paramedics helped lift Laurie Hoirup onto land and began CPR, according to Chris Harvey, a spokesman for the Sacramento Fire Department. An ambulance took her to the hospital, where doctors concluded that nothing more could be done.

“She had been down too long. There was no reviving her,” said Jacob Hoirup. “So many people tried so hard.”

The two had been married for 20 years.

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Lauire Hoirup was born on March 14, 1956 in Chicago’s Cook County Hospital, and doctors told her parents that the newborn likely wouldn’t survive the year. The trend of doctors predicting imminent death continued through her childhood in Northern Illinois, but she outlived the prognosis each time.

She was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, a rare genetic disease that involves the withering of the nerve cells in the spinal cord that govern muscle movement.

The brutal Midwest winters hurt her lungs, so her parents moved to Arizona during her final year of high school, her husband said. Hoirup graduated from Arizona State University before enrolling in Sacramento State University to earn a graduate degree in rehabilitative counseling. 

After Hoirup worked as the executive director at an independent living center in Riverside, Schwarzenegger appointed her to the State Council on Developmental Disabilities. She was promoted to the chief deputy director position, but later turned down an offer to work as director, citing the taxing schedule.

“She worked 60 to 70 hours per week, and it was weakening her,” her husband said. She retired in 2010.

Her first book, “I Can Dance: My Life With a Disability,” was published in 2012 with a nationwide book tour. She and her husband drove about 14,000 miles across the U.S., candidly discussing her daily life, including her sexual life. She had two children from a previous marriage.

“She was different than other advocates: She was not there to sue you or force things down your throat,” her husband said. “She wanted to raise awareness of the barriers she had to overcome on a daily basis.”

A second book aimed at children in middle school and young adults was published in March, with a main character who uses a wheelchair. Another children’s book and a follow-up to her memoir are also in the works, her husband said.

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She prioritized time with her two children and four grandsons and urged  friends to travel and stay active. 

“She passed away doing something she loved,” Jacob Hoirup said. “Just being out and living her life.”

For more news in California, follow @MattHjourno.


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