Family remembers Salem boy lost in Willamette River, asks for help in search

Four days after her son disappeared while playing in the Willamette River, a Salem mother is pleading for the public's help in finding the missing 11-year-old.

Yvonne Holguin asked that anyone with kayaks, boats or canoes join in the search for her son Nehemiah Wilson.

Three deputies from the Polk County Sheriff's Office continued searching the river by boat Tuesday.

Polk County Sheriff Mark Garton said they are strategically searching the stretch of river running from Salem to Wheatland Ferry section by section and combing the riverbanks.

"They've been giving me updates," Holguin said. "I know they are limited. They're doing all they can."

Garton said anyone who finds Nehemiah should immediately contact 911.

Nehemiah would've celebrated his 12th birthday on July 16.

The soon-to-be seventh grader was described as a loving, goofy and energetic boy who was always willing to help.

Nehemiah lived in Salem with his family and attended Walker Middle School. He was the oldest of four and always looked out for his younger sister and two brothers.

"He was a good big brother," Holguin said.

On Friday, as more reluctant relatives stayed on the shore, the skinny 11-year-old boldly hopped in the Willamette's chilly waters, she said.

RELATED: Willamette search continues for boy described as 'fun, loving, enthusiastic pre-teen'

The sunny, 93-degree afternoon seemed the right time for their yearly dip in the river near Wallace Marine Park. Holguin and her boyfriend thought it would be a good day for a family outing, she said. The children excitedly ran down the shore and into the river, cooling off from the summer heat.

Holguin told them to come ashore, but Nehemiah began struggling to swim near the Union Street Pedestrian Bridge.

She screamed for help. Several people rushed into the water to try to save Nehemiah as he struggled to stay afloat. One person said he grabbed the boy's hand before he slipped away.

It felt like forever until rescue crews arrived, Holguin said.

Officers were on scene within minutes, Salem police spokesman Lt. Dave Okada said.

Responders made everyone get out of the water, and they waited for a dive team to arrive.

"It was too late," she said.

Nehemiah was gone.

A multi-agency search lasted for hours Friday as teams combed the area.

RELATED: Search efforts continue for missing Salem boy in Willamette River

A boat from Salem Fire Department and a Polk County Sheriff's Office Marine Enforcement boat were at the scene.

The Linn County Sheriff's Office deployed divers, and two planes sent by the Benton County Sheriff's Office flew in to help with the search.

Okada said Nehemiah apparently wasn't wearing a life jacket.

Okada urged caution around the water. "This is the perfect example: It looks very peaceful, but when you get in the water, the currents are strong, the water is cold," he said.

The search continued over the weekend and on Monday, with at least eight other agencies assisting the Polk County Sheriff's Office. Search personnel used underwater cameras, dive teams, air searches, K-9 dogs and boats.

The ensuing days have been full of chaos and dread.

"I cried, I blamed myself," Holguin said. "Everyone is blaming themselves."

The stinging comments online from people blaming her and her son have been hurtful, she said.

She never thought their usual swimming spot could be so dangerous.

"It was just a tragic accident," she said.

Nehemiah's family has presumed him to be dead.

A relative set up a GoFundMe account for his memorial. By Wednesday morning, strangers, relatives, friends and anonymous donors had donated more than $4,700 for the family.

Holguin said she wanted people to remember that Nehemiah was a loving, good-hearted boy. He enjoyed video games, Pokemon and playing with his siblings.

While going through a pre-teen phase, Nehemiah reluctantly joined wrestling and track after his mother urged him to. He grew to love both. He began running the 100-meter dash and hurdles.

Holguin thanked the police officers, rescue crews, deputies and everyone else who dedicated themselves to the search.

"I just want my son to be found so we can put him to rest," she said.

Until then, she said, time is standing still.

For questions, comments and news tips, email reporter Whitney Woodworth at wmwoodwort@statesmanjournal.com, call 503-399-6884 or follow on Twitter @wmwoodworth

© 2017 KGW-TV


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