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Woman rescued from chilly river water

Christina Proctor

As Hilary Svanoe watched the sunset, she concentrated on the belief that someone would come looking for her.

A Sunday afternoon walk in the Upper Truckee meadow near the Tahoe Keys Marina started out innocently enough. Svanoe, 22, was taking her dogs, Marley and Tosh, for their usual hour walk. They were less than five minutes from the car when Svanoe heard the splash.

Tosh, a one-year-old mix of husky, chow, wolf, and Great Dane, had fallen down the steep bank and into the Upper Truckee River. Without stopping to worry about her own safety Svanoe reached over the bank to help Tosh.

“I just immediately thought I have to get my baby out of the water,” Svanoe said. “I slipped and fell into the river with him. He immediately grabbed on to me. I pushed him out, but when I tried to climb out I couldn’t get a hold anywhere.”

Svanoe was stuck waist deep in the chilly water with the icy snowbank rising nearly 5 feet over her head. Svanoe believes she fell in around 5:30 p.m.

She would stay there for nearly two and half hours, calling for help every three minutes. Jamie Olson, 19, heard Svanoe’s screams from outside her apartment – more than a half-mile away across the Truckee Marsh – on San Jose Avenue in Al Tahoe around 7:30 p.m.

“It was a blood-curdling ‘help me’ scream,” Olson said. “I called 911 and then went outside and waited. Every time she stopped yelling I would think ‘please keep screaming.’ I thought she was dying.”

Olson thinks she might have heard Svanoe’s initial cries for help around 5:30 p.m. when she was outside her apartment studying, but she believed the yells were children playing in the meadow.

Olson and her friend, Robin Spencer, 22, alerted police who responded to the dead end of Lily Avenue and tried to communicate with Svanoe over a loudspeaker while additional personnel went to the Tahoe Keys Marina to look. After searching for almost 40 minutes Svanoe was found by emergency personnel and treated at the scene for mild hypothermia.

“A lot of things went through my head,” Svanoe said on Monday resting at her home. “People always say life is precious, but you don’t really understand the phrase until something happens. I never knew if I would panic in that sort of situation. At least now I know I can keep a straight head. I knew somebody would realize that something was wrong. I knew I just had to wait and be patient.”

Svanoe said at one point she attempted to walk both up and downstream to find a better place to climb out, but each time the water kept getting deeper so she decided to stay in place, which authorities said was probably a wise decision.

Svanoe said the dogs stayed at the river with her for awhile and then wandered off. When the authorities arrived the dogs were waiting by Svanoe’s car.

When Svanoe’s husband, Tim Edison, got home from work Sunday evening and she and the dogs weren’t home the first place he looked was the meadow. He arrived after the emergency personnel. After this scare the couple has decided to purchase a cellular phone.

“I never though about the river being a hazard like that,” Svanoe admitted. “I’m just glad it’s a calm river. It was a fairly warm day with no wind. I could have been a lot worse.”

Michael Chandler, division chief for the South Lake Tahoe Fire Department, said many times people don’t realize the danger cold water immersion can cause.

“People don’t recognize how cold the water is and they can quickly lose control of the situation,” Chandler explained. “They lose muscle coordination and become unable to swim.”

Chandler said the biggest danger is hypothermia, the lowering of a person’s core temperature. The main thing people should do when they find someone in distress is to activate the 911 system, Chandler said.

“If they find a person in the water they can extend something to them if they can, but they shouldn’t go in the water themselves. That often results in two victims,” Chandler said. “If the water had been much deeper Svanoe probably would have been in trouble. She was probably still producing heat in her upper body.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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