Washington Boy Slips off Falls, Drowns

Responders spent more than two hours frantically searching for the child.

BELLINGHAM - A 7-year-old boy on a trip to Whatcom Falls with his family slipped into the main falls Tuesday afternoon, May 13, and apparently drowned.

Rescuers spent two hours frantically trying to find the boy amid the pounding falls and debris before spotting his body about 3 p.m.

"This is horribly tragic," Bellingham Police Lt. Bob Vander Yacht said after the boy was found. He and rescuers on scene said the boy was dead.

A sheet covered him as medics wheeled him on a gurney across the stone bridge at the park's entrance and to a waiting ambulance. Emergency medical technicians didn't appear to be making any effort to resuscitate him.

Staff at St. Joseph hospital told medics to bring him in to try any life-saving measures that they could. Because the boy had been in cold water, there was hope that he could be revived, even after about two hours underwater.

"A decision was made that hospital staff was going to try some additional things to try to bring him back," Vander Yacht said.

The boy apparently had been walking on the rocks at the top of the falls before the accident. His family called 911 about 1:15 p.m. to report he had slipped and fallen into the creek near the stone bridge and hatchery, Vander Yacht said. The plunge would have been roughly 30 feet down the falls.

Ruth Young was at the park with her family when the boy fell. Her grandson lunged into the water to grab him, but everything happened so fast.

"My grandson just missed him by a hair and my husband just missed him by a hair," she said. "The force is so great. He was just gone in an instant."

Becky and Paul Klein had crossed paths with the family just moments before as they were walking through the park near the falls. The couple heard what happened as they looped back through the area, and Klein said she couldn't imagine how horrifying that must have been for the family.

"He was the cutest little boy," she said.

Bellingham police, fire, a Whatcom County Search & Rescue swift-water rescue team and divers quickly got involved in the search. Bellingham Public Works decreased the creek flow to the falls to help out.

Firefighters lowered themselves on ropes to check around the falls but struggled to see anything. The water remained very dangerous.

The boy's mother watched from the stone bridge as the search progressed, sobbing next to a Whatcom County support officer. Nearby, a witness held the boy's 5-year-old sister, trying to keep her spirits up during the search.

Just before 3 p.m. rescuers announced they had spotted the boy in the water. The boy's parents wailed as he was brought from the water.

Before the child had been found, rescuers pledged to stay on the scene as long as needed.

"We will continue to search until we find this boy," Vander Yacht said. "It's important to us and important to the family."

The boy's name was not immediately released.

Kevin Clark manages and lives at the hatchery near where the accident occurred, and he said that deaths and injuries in the creek are all too common.

"It's been countless numbers of people," he said. "It just breaks my heart."

The first sunny days of the season seem to be the worst, he said. People race to get outdoors and enjoy the sunshine, and they don't realize how high and fast the water is during spring.

"Spring is just a notoriously dangerous time to be near the creek," Clark said.

Last month, a Bellingham man nearly drowned in another section of Whatcom Falls Park. Gradon Lee "Grady" Barstad leaped from a 30-foot-tall boulder into a rocky part of Whatcom Creek near Whirlpool Falls, a popular swimming hole, on April 13.

He resurfaced but was floating facedown, unconscious. Two swimmers brought him to shore and a nurse performed CPR until medics arrived. He was hospitalized briefly before being released.

A Squalicum High School student drowned a year ago when he jumped into Whatcom Creek. Daniel Santiago Guerrero, 16, leaped into the deceptively fast-moving and deep water, north of Whatcom Falls, at dusk May 6, 2013. The current beneath a 3-foot-tall cascade swept Guerrero under. Rescuers struggled to pull Guerrero out because of the force of the swirling water. He was pronounced dead at St. Joseph hospital.

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