28-year-old rugby player dies after being sucked into whirlpool while cooling off after heatwave in California river

28-year-old rugby player dies after being sucked into whirlpool while cooling off after heatwave in California river



A rugby player has died after being sucked into a whirlpool while trying to cool off in a heatwave.

Nasoni “Toni” Tuitoga, 28, of Santa Rosa, disappeared Wednesday after going swimming with friends in the Russian River in California.

Before getting into the water, Toni posted a chilling message on Facebook that read: “Rivering,” accompanied by laughing and crying emojis. The post is now filled with heartfelt tributes to her.

Toni, a member of the Santa Rosa Rugby Club, never made it out of the water as his desperate friends watched him spin in circles as the strong currents carried him underwater.

He is among several people who have drowned in the state, while three others were found dead in rivers last week.

Nasoni “Toni” Tuitoga, 28, of Santa Rosa, became trapped in a whirlpool Wednesday in California’s Russian River.
Toni’s friends joined search and rescue teams to search for him for two days before finding his body about 30-40 feet from where he was last seen.

Tributes to the athlete have since poured in. His heartbroken mother recalled the moment police came knocking on her door and told her her youngest son had died.

“They put his cell phone on the table and I started crying. I knew it,” Lavenia Cavora Tuinaceva Tuitoga told KTVU.

“I’m going to miss his smile so much,” she added.

“I continue to ask God to give us peace in our hearts.”

Toni’s friend, Joe Quaihoi, called 911 around 6:17 p.m. Wednesday and reported that he was missing in the river near Villa Grande.

Quaihoi said: “The craziest thing is, we would yell at him when we saw him swimming in circles, like, ‘Hey, are you okay?’ and he never really responded until he disappeared underwater.”

Quaihoi and Toni’s other friends joined the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Marine Unit, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Volunteer Dive Team and the Monte Rio Fire Protection District working to find him.

Search crews found his body Friday, washed up about 30-40 feet from where he was last seen.

Before jumping into the water, Toni posted a scary message on Facebook that read: “Rivering,” with laughing and crying emojis.

Santa Rosa Rugby Club also paid tribute to Toni on Saturday with a post of him smiling on the field.

“It’s a sad day for our rugby community. We lost one of our players this week, Tony (Nasoni Tuitoga Jr) and our team wouldn’t be the same without his energy.

“Our condolences and prayers go out to his family and loved ones,” the club said.

Others commented on the sudden loss of a man who seemed to have impacted many people in his life.

One of them said: “Always a big smile and laughter!”

“Rest in peace my brother,” wrote another.

Toni’s friend Joe Quaihoi watched him get sucked into the water as he called out to see if he needed help.
Santa Rosa Rugby Club paid tribute to Toni on Saturday with a post of him smiling on the field

Just a day after Toni was found, another man, Pedro Ramirez Lopez, 51, drowned at Monte Rio Beach, located near the Russian River.

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The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office was called around 6:40 p.m. and when authorities arrived, bystanders were performing CPR on Lopez, who died at the scene.

“Multiple people died in the Russian River in 2024,” the sheriff’s office said.

“Although it appears calm on the surface, the river can have strong currents, deep areas and drop-offs, as well as underwater debris.

“We urge everyone to follow water safety rules when visiting our beautiful river.”

On Tuesday, another man drowned in the Modesto Reservoir, about three hours from the Russian River.

“I will miss him so much, his smile,” said Toni’s mother, Lavenia Cavora Tuinaceva Tuitoga. “I continue to ask God to give us peace in our hearts.”

A 15-year-old boy was killed in a similar drowning in April when he and a friend were swept away by strong currents. The teenager’s friend managed to escape, Sfist reported.

When caught in strong currents or a whirlpool, authorities recommend that swimmers paddle with the direction of the current and not fight against it.

Although California and much of the country has already been hit by scorching temperatures, states are expected to see record high daily temperatures this week.

Many people have died or been seriously injured due to the heat, including a baby who died while on a boat with his family in Arizona on Friday.

A motorcyclist died Saturday in Death Valley from heat exposure, Death Valley National Park said.