Man's body found in rain-swollen Santa Rosa creek

A woman on a walk Monday morning made a disturbing discovery: a body in the rain-swollen Santa Rosa Creek. 

"The individual was caught up along the shoreline, face down, and he had no pulse," Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal told KTVU, explaining how a swift water rescue response was summoned, but of no use.

The man's body was carried up the embankment in a rescue basket and taken to the Sonoma County Coroner's office. Monday evening, authorities were waiting to release his identity until next of kin are notified. 

"You can see the debris in the trees, so the water was up significantly," said Lowenthal, explaining that runoff from the weekend's rainstorm had pushed the creek flow ten feet higher, and much stronger.

The man was found near the Pierson Street Bridge where it intersects W. 6th Street.   

"The creek is designed to get water out of the city and into the Santa Rosa Laguna area, so it's designed to channel water quickly and efficiently and fast." 

There are rescue poles places strategically along the waterway. 

"It does happen on occasion, sadly," resident Don Jones told KTVU, who enjoys the nature paths along the creek almost daily. 

The trails are well-used for walking and cycling, stretching several miles from downtown Santa Rosa to the watershed west of town. 

Warnings are issued every year, aimed especially at children: the creek they play in during summer isn't the same in winter.  

 "It's powerful, very powerful, and it would be a struggle to get to the shore because it's moving very quickly," said Jones.  

He, and others familiar with the area, suspect the victim was a transient, perhaps camping on the creek bank.

"There's homeless that live all around here, under the bridges, they're everywhere."

The woman who called 911 saw a white hand sticking out at the water's edge. 

"You would be surprised how many people go by without looking closely at the water or the ground," observed Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Josh Ludtke. 

How long the man was in the water is undetermined, as the Coroner performs an autopsy.

"Hypothermia, he could have fallen into the water and drowned," said Ludtke, "and obviously we don't rule out foul play but there's nothing so far to indicate any foul play."  

The hazard, Ludtke notes, is deceptive. 

"Even where it's waist-deep or thigh-deep, it could sweep you off your feet, knock you down."

Downtown Santa Rosa has a sizable homeless population. 

Assistance agencies are located there, and overpasses and doorways offer protection in inclement weather. 

A seasonal shelter is open for the cold months, in addition to the year-round facilities.  

Monday morning, as the tragedy unfolded, an unidentified homeless man sat alone on the creek bank, watching emergency responders, his face somber.

"There are not many places for homeless to go now in Sonoma County, they're being kicked out everywhere," said resident Dustin Oertel, who lives just steps away from where the man's body was recovered.  

"When it's this close and in your front yard, it's all of our problem, and it's something we all need to try to take steps to remedy," said Oertel.

A few years ago, two homeless men sleeping in a culvert were swept into the Santa Rosa Creek, but rescued safely. 

Sadly, Santa Rosa Fire did not have that opportunity this time.