Churning debris and the rocketing current spiked the danger quotient as rescuers worked to pull two people from the rain-swollen Los Angeles River on Friday.
Dusty Clark of the Los Angeles Fire Department rescued one of two people from a section of the river with thick, partially submerged trees near the intersection of Glendale Boulevard and Riverside Drive.
Clark said he could have been pinned by debris. Large branches and other detritus swept past as firefighters rescued the husband and wife. Officials said the lack of rain this year meant there was a lot of clutter being carried away by the storm.
“Anything floating down that river [could] pin me down and trap me under,” Clark said.
The couple were transients who were living along the river, authorities said. They were trapped in the trees, unable to get out of the fast-moving current. Their names were not immediately released.
The man was found and rescued first, and told rescue swimmers that his wife was still in the water.
He “was worried about his wife and worried about his bicycle, believe it or not, and he was just thankful that we were able to go out there and give him a hand,” said Clark, an LAFD apparatus operator.
The woman was more difficult to locate, and crews searched for her for more than an hour amid the trees and rushing water. Bystanders said they heard her occasionally yelling as rescuers tried to find her. A fire department helicopter made low passes over the river, the blades churning spray on the spectators gathered on the banks.
Once the woman was spotted, a rescue swimmer made his way toward her through the trees, put her in a life jacket and pulled her onto a rubber boat to be ferried to the bank. The woman, who was conscious but quiet, was carried to a medical stretcher waiting on the Los Angeles River bike path.
She was wearing a T-shirt and was soaked, holding her hand up to her face.
Both the man and woman were taken to local hospitals and appeared to be suffering from hypothermia, officials said.
Clark, the rescuer, said the woman “was thankful” for the rescue but “unable to communicate.”
Clark said swift-water rescue teams have for years trained in that section of the river, which is considered to be one of its more scenic stretches.
LAFD Battalion Chief Charles Butler said many homeless people live along the river – especially in that area – and that “every time it rains” there is a danger of someone getting caught in the water.
“It’s a big issue for us down here,” Butler said. “The river’s beautiful, with the trees in the middle. It’s returned to its natural state.
“I know that’s what the public likes to see, but it really creates a great deal of risk for our firefighters.”
Butler said the trees were a hazard called a “strainer” by swift-water rescuers – something that lets water pass through but traps a person.
“If you get hung up in a strainer, you’re likely going to drown,” he said.
Fire officials said people should stay away from waterways and storm drains when it rains.
Up the street from the rescue, several people were walking along the steep banks of the river, even as it continued to rain.