Packed with visitors, water rescues are becoming more complicated along the Salt River
PHOENIX - We have obtained exclusive video of an airboat rescue by deputies with the Maricopa County Sheriffs Office, which was complicated by a river that was blocked by tubers and kayakers.
MCSO Lake Patrol takes part in challenging rescues
The Salt River: a beautiful stretch surrounded by the Tonto National Forest, with wild horses roaming the shore under the shadow of the Superstitions. It’s remote, peaceful, and fun.
"This is my patrol beat. Look. You can’t beat this." said Deputy Jim Cesolini.
The Lake Patrol is a division of the MCSO that responds to some of the most challenging rescues. Deputies Cesolini and Clint Bradshaw detailed how they get to where cars -- and even sometimes helicopters -- can’t.
The airboats are their tools to find and save lives in hard to reach places.
"We don’t launch this boat just to drive up and down the river. We’re usually using it for a rescue mission," said Deputy Cesolini. "It’s a corvette engine attached to fan blades on the back that propel forward."
At times, a response can be minor, like alerting a family their ATV is in a protected area. Other times, they will chat with kids and parents about water safety.
"This is a police boat!" said Deputy Cesolini.
Rescue calls on the rise
The non-rescue moments that Deputy Cesolini mentioned are now just brief moments of reprieve from rescues that are becoming more and more regular.
According to data from MCSO, medical Calls for Lake Patrol are up 14% so far, year-over-year. Meanwhile, missing persons responses are up 19%, search and rescue operations are up 22% this year.
Drownings calls have increased the most, with the Lake Patrol reporting 17 drownings from January to June 2021. For all of 2020, there were 10 such incidents.
Crowded river presents new challenges
One of the most challenging parts of Lake Patrol is navigating the airboat, especially at the height of summer, when the river is filled with tubers and kayakers. Even on a slow day, it can be crowded.
Holidays are another story, where officials say 10,000 to 30,000 people could be at the river.
With the crowds, just going up river requires intense concentration.
"There are times when it's wall-to-wall tubers," said one member of the Lake Patrol. "Literally. You can’t get by."
Challenging rescue caught on camera
The rescue of Carley Bove happened on a day when many people were on the river.
"Tell those people to watch out. Watch their legs! Watch their legs!" a rescuer was heard saying in the video.
The incident, which happened on May 30, was the third water rescue of the day. Deputies on the shore were telling tubers to get out of the way.
"Guys, clear the way. There's a boat coming. Get to the shore," said one rescuer on the shore.
From the boat, Deputy Manuel Madrigal was navigating the water, while Deputy Cesolini was directing tubers. Some of the tubers scramble to get out of the way, while others just sat there.
"There’s no other way to get to people without these capabilities. If we didn’t have this airboat, people would be stuck on shorelines."
After nearly eight minutes, Lake Patrol members got to Bove, and got her onboard the airboat.
The way out, however was blocked, with the boat hitting branches and rocks. During the rescue, Bove lost consciousness twice on the airboat's bow, and crews had to perform CPR.
Deputy Cesolini was at the bow during the rescue.
"Somebody had to protect her, to keep her from falling in, so I took that job and positioned myself backwards on the bow, so that I could keep anything from happening, in case we hit a rock, wind gust or river current," said Deputy Cesolini.
It took another eight minutes to get the airboat to the waiting ambulance.
Deputy Cesolini says precious seconds ticking away has become the new reality of a crowded river.
"This is becoming the norm. More and more people want to get out here," said Deputy Cesolini.
Rescuers reunite with Bove and her family
Bove survived, as Deputy Cesolini's chest compressions revived her. A month after the rescue, there was a tearful hug between a family and deputies, thanks to the stressful 15-minute rescue effort.
"We need to go. We need to go. I didn’t want to lose her, and we did everything we could," Deputy Cesolini recounted.
"Something in my heart said these people saved your life. You need to thank them," said Bove.
Deputy has message on water safety
Bove was moments away from being another statistic in a year of increased drownings, and it may not slow down as Arizona’s population explodes.
In the meantime, Deputy Cesolini has a clear message, as more and more people come out to have fun on the water.
"Wear a life jacket,"said Deputy Cesolini. "Carley wasn’t. She knows she only survived because the airboat got there in time."
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