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Local man drowns on Klamath

Clarence James Hall ().
Clarence James Hall ().

By Nicholas Grube

A Crescent City resident is dead after a boating accident this weekend on the Klamath River.

Clarence James Hall, 44, died Saturday afternoon when a boat he was in with three other people capsized near the mouth of the Klamath River. Though none of the passengers was wearing life jackets, one man with a prosthetic leg treaded water two miles off shore for nearly an hour and a half while waiting to be rescued.

According to Del Norte County sheriff's Deputy Tim Wiley, who is with the department's marine unit, a series of mechanical events led to the boat eventually capsizing.

Wiley said Hall, Guadalupe Oscar, Nonnie Lee and Michael Perry were gill-netting near the mouth of the Klamath in a 16-foot, flat-bottom jet-drive boat when docking line got caught in the propeller.

The boat was swept into the surf zone as Perry, the boat's operator, worked to remove the line from the propeller. But just when Perry freed up the propeller, Wiley said the boat was hit by a wave.

"Right at that point he was struck by a wave and the boat was capsized," Wiley said. "Unfortunately, things just went wrong and, just as he was finally able to save the situation, he was impacted by the wave."

In an interview with The Triplicate, Perry said he had just restarted the motor when a 15-foot-tall wave hit the boat and started to flip the vessel.

"By the time I restarted the motor it was too late. And even if I had pointed into the wave, this was a flat bottom boat, it wouldn't have mattered," Perry said of being hit by the wave. "I'm no fool. I've been doing a lot of boating and grabbed onto what I could" when the wave hit.

Perry and Oscar stayed with the overturned boat, but they could hear Hall and Lee yelling.

"We were yelling at (them), ‘Ride the waves. Just stick with the waves,'" Perry said. "Roughly 20 minutes, maybe 30 minutes passed that we were hearing yelling and it sounded like (Lee) and it could have been Jim (Hall), I don't know."

Perry said he and Oscar tried to push the boat toward the voice of his friends, but fighting the waves was futile.

Shortly after, a Yurok Tribal Rescue boat arrived on the scene and picked up Perry and Oscar.

Yurok Tribal Police Chief Dave Parris said his officers were at the Yurok Tribe Headquarters for a meeting when they got the call.

"They received a call from a party that was evidently up river and (the callers) heard the yelling and screaming for help," Parris said. "The officers had to drive outside of the river into the mouth ... They picked up the two out there."

Once in the Yurok Tribal boat, Perry said he directed his rescuers toward where he thought his friend Hall was.

"I do know when Jim went over the side he was holding onto a cool chest," Perry said. "I know according to Jim, he was not a good swimmer."

So when Perry only saw the cooler in the water, he knew something bad had happened.

"I just got real worried," he said.

When Hall washed up on shore, he was already dead.

"I'm having a rough time," Perry said, adding that Hall was a "best friend."

The two had met shortly after Perry moved to Del Norte County, and Hall helped Perry fix up his house.

"Jim was an extremely strong person, a hard worker. He would help anybody with anything. If you had a problem, Jim's there, and you don't have a problem," Perry said. "He was notorious for helping out in whatever manner he could ... It was a big heart. Big heart. Big laugh."

Del Norte County Assistant Coroner Mike Henderson said the cause of death has not been determined.

The fourth passenger, 30-year-old Nonnie Lee, got caught in the river's current and was taken nearly two miles out to sea.

"The river continues to flow for about two miles out into the ocean. It's almost like a river in that body of water," Wiley said. "Victims are either able to get out of that current and wash up to the beach or they can't and they travel about two miles out into the ocean."

To locate Lee, Wiley said it was necessary to find the direction of the river's ocean current because it constantly changes. When doing this, he said rescue workers try to use a buoy to denote which way the water is flowing to get a better idea of where a person might be.

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter from Group Humboldt Bay in Eureka helped in the search and rescue efforts, and found Lee two miles off shore.

Lee, who has a prosthetic leg and had been in the 55-degree water for nearly an hour and a half, was still alive when a Coast Guard rescue swimmer reached him and placed him in a basket to be hoisted into the helicopter.

He was taken to Mercy Hospital in Redding to receive treatment for hypothermia and near drowning.

U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Jonathan Cilley said if Lee had been in the water much longer he probably would not have survived.

"Survivability time usually fluctuates, but usually it's around a two-hour functional time," in which a person's muscles will stop working, Cilley said. "If you're not wearing a life jacket or you're not in a raft your muscles stop working and you stop treading water."

The Coast Guard uses survivability rates to determine how long someone can survive in the ocean. If Lee had a life jacket on, his survivability time would have been more than four hours, Cilley said, though his functional time would still be around two hours.

"In this instance, both would be around two hours for a person who doesn't have a life jacket," he said.

Deputy Wiley, who was at the rescue scene, contributed Lee's survival to his will to live.

"In those cases, if you have that will, you're giving yourself the best opportunity to survive," Wiley said. "The guy was definitely a survivor, a fighter, to be working through that and keeping himself alive."

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