Man drowns in Two Rivers Park lagoon

FINLEY -- An outing to soak up some sun on the second day of summer ended in tragedy when a man drowned in the lagoon at Two Rivers Park.

"I just can't believe it happened," said Christopher Mack, a Pasco man at the Finley park who tried to help rescue the 35-year-old victim. "I was like 5 feet, 10 feet away from him, and he just went down."

The drowning victim, identified by friends as Jose Mejia, was on a round yellow raft with Julio Mateo, 30, and Mateo's brother before going overboard.

Mejia drowned just before 4 p.m. Wednesday, and his body was recovered by Columbia Basin Dive Rescue members at 7:10 p.m., said Benton County sheriff's Detective Erik Magnuson.

Mateo, who is from Guatemala and was visiting his brother in Kennewick, said he met Mejia three days ago. Mejia also was from Guatemala and visiting the area. His wife and children remain in Guatemala.

Mejia invited Mateo and his brother to go swimming at the park Wednesday. The friends had been there since about 2 p.m. and were on a raft just south of the roped off swimming area in the lagoon.

"It seemed like he could swim in the water," Mateo said. "I don't know what happened."

Witnesses said it appeared Mejia started panicking. The other two also fell in, and then Mejia sank.

Mateo and his brother called for help and were able to get back onto the raft as others swam out to help them.

Mack said just before Mejia disappeared underwater, the men were throwing each other off and on the raft, playing and splashing around.

"I thought they were playing, then I saw the look on their faces -- they were stricken with fear," said Mack, who was nearby in a small raft with his dog.

Mack tried to swim down to save him, but couldn't find Mejia in the cold, murky Columbia River lagoon, estimated to be about 30 feet deep.

Other swimmers on shore also jumped in. Mack said he was surprised at how much energy it took trying to dive under and how quickly he got tired.

On shore, Vicki Morse of Kennewick watched Mejia's friends calling for help and started yelling at people to call 911.

The park was packed with Tri-Citians enjoying the hottest day so far this year. Temperatures reached 92 degrees just before 5 p.m., according to the National Weather Service.

"We heard her cries for help," said Rachel Curtis, 32, of Kennewick. "And she sent her husband in."

Morse's son had been using a small boat to fish earlier in the day, and her husband, David, jumped in the boat and paddled out to help.

Mack ended up getting in Morse's boat and continued searching for Mejia once others went back to shore.

They remained on the water for about 30 minutes until a Benton County sheriff's boat arrived and Dive Rescue members got in the water.

Meanwhile, emergency responders from Benton Fire District 1, Kennewick Fire Department and Benton County Sheriff's Office arrived at the park and started checking Mejia's friends and interviewing witnesses.

Mack and Morse were visibly shaken when they got back to shore and were checked out by medics.

Morse's wife consoled her husband and told him, "You did everything you could."

As other bystanders began leaving, Mack and Morse stayed at the park waiting for divers to find Mejia's body.

Mack said he wished he could have done more -- he wished he could have saved him.

"I can't believe somebody who was right in front of me is dead now," he said, shaking his head.

Mejia and his friends were not wearing life jackets, Magnuson said.

This was the first drowning of the year in the Tri-Cities. Last year, a Finley teen drowned after jumping off the Two Rivers Park boat launch, which is east of the park on the Columbia River.

Curtis, who was with a group playing disc golf nearby, expressed concerns about the time it took to get rescuers into the water.

"There's so many drownings, you think they'd be within a distance to be able to help," Curtis said. "They need a closer location."

Columbia Basin Dive Rescue is a volunteer organization, and divers respond to emergencies on an on-call basis.

-- Paula Horton: 582-1556; phorton@tricityherald.com