Sunday, November 29 , 2015, 2:15 am | Overcast 50º

Bill Macfadyen: Fateful Walk on Railroad Tracks Ends in Death for Santa Barbara Man

Horses are casualties in NoozWeek's Top 5 while we follow the death of Nick Johnson, rain and a joyous baptism gone terribly wrong

By William M. Macfadyen, Noozhawk Publisher | @noozhawk |

There were 79,452 people who read Noozhawk this past week. What were your top five stories?

1. Suicide Suspected in Train-vs.-Pedestrian Death in Santa Barbara

A man walking on the railroad tracks near Las Positas Road was hit and killed by an Amtrak train March 30, and Santa Barbara police say investigators found a suicide note in a backpack that was left nearby.

On April 1, the Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Office identified the man as Thomas Michael Drennan, 57, of Santa Barbara.

Hours before, another pedestrian suffered minor injuries after being clipped by an Amtrak train near Garden Street.

» Click here for free suicide prevention resources that are available 24 hours a day, or call 1.800.273.8255.

A hairpin turn got the better of a horse trailer, and the accident injured all eight of the horses inside, including two fatally. (Paul Mihalec / KEYT News photo)
A hairpin turn got the better of a horse trailer, and the accident injured all eight of the horses inside, including two fatally. (Paul Mihalec / KEYT News photo)

2. Two Horses Killed, Others Injured When Trailer Nearly Overturns on North San Marcos Road

A horse trailer nearly overturned on North San Marcos Pass Road in the pre-dawn darkness March 28, and the impact sent the eight equine passengers tumbling about inside. Unfortunately, one of the horses died of its injuries and a second had to be euthanized.

Authorities say the driver of the truck pulling the trailer was headed down Highway 154 when he turned off the roadway about 5:45 a.m. to deliver a horse to a nearby ranch.

“The driver had (eight) horses with him and made a hairpin turn,” California Highway Patrol Officer Kevin Taulbee said. “He was unfamiliar with the road and it was dark.”

Sgt. Dave Robertson said the driver — Mathew Gillespie, 54, of Tonopah, Ariz. — high-centered the trailer on the shoulder after failing to make the turn, causing the trailer to pitch and nearly overturn. The horses were thrown against the side of the vehicle, landing on their heads and shoulders.

Gillespie tried to remove the horses from the trailer himself, and then the cavalry arrived, including CHP officers, Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies, Animal Services personnel, the Santa Barbara Humane Society, neighbors and three veterinarians: Drs. Karen Blumenshire, Steve Goss and Bruce Kuesis.

Five of the horses were transported to Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center in Santa Ynez for treatment, while a sixth was walked to its stable with minor injuries.

The CHP is investigating the crash but alcohol or drugs are not believed to be factors.

Speculation about Nick Johnson’s death has begun to focus on a condition known as 'shallow water blackout.' (Johnson family photo)
Speculation about Nick Johnson’s death has begun to focus on a condition known as “shallow water blackout.” (Johnson family photo)

3. Coroner: UCSB Water Polo Player Nick Johnson’s Death Was ‘Accidental Drowning’

Although toxicology results are pending, the Coroner’s Office is calling the March 24 death of UC Santa Barbara water polo player Nick Johnson an “accidental drowning.”

Johnson, 19, was found unresponsive at the bottom of the Santa Barbara High School pool, where he had been working out with his former team. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.

Police Sgt. Riley Harwood told Noozhawk that investigators have found nothing suspicious about the case.

Theories about his death are plentiful, however, and include heart rhythm disorders like long QT syndrome and a condition known as “shallow water blackout.”

Wolf Wigo, Johnson’s coach for the Gauchos and his childhood coach on local club water polo teams, told our Giana Magnoli that he’s certain shallow water blackout is to blame.

“It’s way over a 90 percent chance,” he said, noting that Johnson was swimming laps at the time.

Shallow water blackout essentially is an underwater faint caused by repetitive deep breaths or hyperventilating, among other things. Long, deep, rapid breath inhalations lower the carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, which delays the brain’s normal need to breathe and triggers a blackout. A quick response is critical because the unconscious individual can then drown from inhaling water.

My friend, Don Barthelmess, who teaches in Santa Barbara City College’s Marine Technology Training Department, says the condition is an inherent risk of swimming and free diving, in which people hold their breath for extended periods of time, especially if they hyperventilate beforehand.

“It’s not really common in pool situations,” he explained to Giana. “It’s more common with free divers in a competitive situation.”

Students in the SBCC program must take an underwater swim test at Los Baños del Mar Pool, and Barthelmess says he’s saved several from shallow water blackout there.

He said some students try to swim the length of the 50-meter pool on one breath, in spite of instructors’ warnings.

“I’ve had to jump in the water on three occasions over 25 years to basically pick students up off the bottom,” Barthelmess said. “They’re swimming along and just stop.

“I haven’t had to do CPR, but I’ve had the living daylights scared out of me enough times.”

Meanwhile, Johnson’s family has established scholarship funds at both Santa Barbara High and UCSB.

Donations to the Santa Barbara High aquatics program can be made to the SBHS Aquatics Booster Club-Nick Johnson Memorial Fund, c/o Kelsie Hendrix, treasurer, 2733 Williams Way, Santa Barbara 93105. Click here to make an online donation.

Donations to the UCSB water polo program can be made to the UCSB Foundation-Nick Johnson Memorial Fund, c/o Gifts Administration, University of California Santa Barbara 93106-1130, or by calling 805.893.2112. Click here to make an online donation, and navigate to the “Nick Johnson Memorial Fund” in the drop-down box.

A series of late-winter storms looked more ominous over Santa Barbara than they turned out to be. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)
A series of late-winter storms looked more ominous over Santa Barbara than they turned out to be. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

4. New Storm Could Drop Over an Inch of Rain on Santa Barbara County

A couple of storms swept into Santa Barbara County this past week. Rainfall totals generally were in the half-inch range — always welcome but not enough to make much of a difference in the drought.

According to Santa Barbara County Flood Control District data, Lake Cachuma has received 10.41 inches of rain, which is 57 percent of normal rainfall. Lompoc, Santa Ynez and Sisquoc were slightly above 50 percent.

Santa Barbara was 47 percent of normal, Goleta 40 percent, Santa Maria 39 percent and Carpinteria 32 percent.

The National Weather Service said warmer, sunny weather is expected throughout the weekend.

5. Reports of Body in Surf Off Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Park Prove Unfounded

The day after a man went missing after he and two other people were swept out to sea at Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Park, authorities on March 31 were fielding numerous reports of “a body” spotted in the surf line about two miles to the north. Alas, it was a false alarm.

Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. David Sadecki said officials believe the well-meaning witnesses mistook fishing buoys for a body.

“The initial reports we got turned out to be a false alarm,” he said.

On March 30, a powerful wave swept three people into the ocean as a baptism ceremony concluded around 10 a.m. Two people were rescued unharmed but the third could not be found, despite the best efforts of multiple water-rescue teams.

KEYT News identified the missing man as Benito Flores, a 43-year-old member of Santa Maria’s Jesus Christ Light in the Sky Church, which had been holding a baptism at the beach, about four miles west of Guadalupe.

                                                                        •        •

You think dogs are content to wait in the car? Think again.

(The Courier video)

                                                                  •        •        •

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— Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at [email protected], follow him on Twitter: @noozhawk, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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