Above the Call

Officer jumps into river to save drowning swimmer

Woman in correctional officer uniform stands in front Sierra Conservation Center sign.
Correctional Officer Amy Duncan has worked at Sierra Conservation Center for 12 years.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

What began as a fun day at a popular swimming hole soon turned deadly, leaving Correctional Officer Amy Duncan with little choice but to act.

Duncan has worked at Sierra Conservation Center since her graduation from the academy 12 years ago. She said her typical work day can range from “normal duties of maintaining the yard like mail and chow, then other days we are dealing with integrating the general population into the non-designated yard. Every day is different.”

A break with her children at God’s Bath, a swimming area on the Clavey River in Stanislaus National Forest, was a nice way to spend a hot afternoon on July 25.

“The swimming area is very popular, more and more every year actually,” she said.

This was her sixth trip to God’s Bath, which requires a moderate hike of nearly a mile.

After a few hours, the Duncan family was ready to head home. A man was standing next to Duncan, taking pictures and video of his friend, who was about to jump off the rock into the water.

“I just happened to be there next to her friend so I looked over to see the jump. She went in and when she came up she went the wrong direction towards the danger of the water fall,” Duncan recalls. “I immediately knew she was going to struggle because the water is still very high and powerful. So I continued to watch and sure enough she began to panic.”

Duncan watched as the woman was getting sucked under into the current “over and over, coming up for a second here and there. I began to shake, her friend was screaming her name and then she stopped coming back up.”

The woman, Stephanie, went limp and the current pushed her out of the waterfall. “That’s when I jumped in. She was floating face down.”

The current and the conditions made it difficult for Duncan to get a good grip on Stephanie. It also threatened Duncan’s life as she felt herself going under.

Helicopter and two men in yellow on a bridge.
A CALFIRE helicopter airlifted the victim out of the river area to the bridge so she could be transported to a hospital by ambulance. Photo by Amy Duncan.

“At first when I grabbed her, I couldn’t move her. The current was too strong and she was completely unconscious and dead weight. I had to let her go and swim into a more advantageous position because knew I couldn’t fight the current and drown there myself right in front of my girls.”

She found a spot where the current wasn’t working against her. The woman was still within reach.

“I grabbed her and swam her out. When I got to the more shallow area, my daughter got in and gave me her boogie board to help float her out. The first flat rock I saw I yelled at everyone to help me pull her up on it.”

With some help, Duncan was able to get the woman to a safe area.

“As soon as she was flat on her back, I began CPR. I did chest compressions, then rolled her on her side and hit her back trying to get all the vomit and water to come out. I did that quite a few times. I did chest compressions for what felt like forever. Then in a last effort thinking there might be a blockage, I laid her on her back and lifted her to a seated position. I got behind her and did two abdominal thrusts. Lots of water and vomit came out and she finally took a breath,” Duncan said.

Finally the reality of the situation hit Duncan.

“I sat back and pulled Stephanie onto my lap and rubbed and patted her back and said her name and rocked her and cried. She was breathing but it was labored and she couldn’t respond to her name,” Duncan said.  

Without cell reception at the river, Duncan took the initiative.

“So after a minute or two I decided it was time to go get help. We wrapped all our towels around her to try to keep her warm. Then, my daughters and I left her there with her friend and a few guys who had just hiked in. We hiked out as fast as possible, got to my car and had to drive another 10 minutes up the road until we found a call spot. It took the responders 20 minutes to get down to us, then the 10 minutes to get to the trail head, then the paramedics hiked down to her with a gurney. The helicopter arrived and the ambulance and the sheriff.”

The helicopter flew to the swimming hole, where they lifted her out and to the safety of the bridge. From there, Stephanie was loaded onto an ambulance and took her to a Modesto hospital.

Since the incident, Officer Duncan and Stephanie have become friends and keep in contact.

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Ambulance and fire engine on a bridge.
Emergency response vehicles on a bridge over the Clavey River. Photo by Amy Duncan.