CAL FIRE: No life jackets worn during drowning
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CAL FIRE: No life jackets worn during drowning

Nov 17, 2023

A friend tried saving 21-year-old Jonathan Nguyen when he drowned near the Magalia Head Dam in the West Branch of the Feather River on May 27th.

BUTTE COUNTY, Calif. - CAL FIRE Butte County Division Chief Sean Norman said there was a second person that tried saving 21-year-old Chico State student Jonathan Nguyen, who died after diving off the Magalia Head Dam in the West Branch of the Feather River.

Division Chief Norman said Nguyen jumped into the water, briefly resurfaced and yelled, 'Help! I'm drowning!' Then he went back underwater and his friend tried to save him.

Division Chief Norman said they see a lot of deaths when it comes to other people jumping in to try and save someone who's drowning in rough waters like what's seen along the West Branch of the Feather River.

"If you don't have a life jacket, you don't stand a chance?" Action News Now reporter Taylor Helmes asked Dave Steindorf, a hydropower specialist with American Whitewater.

"Yeah, you don't have a chance out there. You're just going to get circulated back around in that hole that's out there over and over again," Steindorf said. "And what happens is the flow goes up. If you look out there, the place where it's recirculating gets further and further downstream. So, right now it's 10 or 15 feet downstream where you'd actually have to swim against the current to get out of that. You're just not going to make it over that."

Overall, the chief and experts say the area around the Magalia Head Dam is hazardous.

"The whole entire chunk of this river, whether you're hiking in from Dean Road or [the Magalia Head Dam] or somewhere else is experiencing the same fast, cold water and we just don't want to have another tragedy like we've already experienced here where people coming in and then getting in trouble and then losing their life here," Division Chief Norman said.

Roses found on rocks near Magalia Head Dam

Division Chief Norman said there's nothing Nguyen or his friend could have done to be save with those water conditions. Nguyen was also not wearing a life jacket at the time.

The Butte County Sheriff's Office said Nguyen dove off the dam and drowned on May 27th, but his body wasn't recovered until the following day by Butte County Sheriff's Officer Search and Rescue volunteers and CAL FIRE Butte County crews.

Taylor Helmes joined Action News Now as a producer in 2021.