When University of Oregon freshman Sidney “Tony” Nelson jumped into the waters below Wildwood Falls on Sunday, “you could see he was smiling, like he was proud of himself,” best friend Javier Cruz-Contreras recounted Wednesday.

“But then he started treading water a little bit and didn’t start swimming right away,” Cruz-Contreras said.

In the minutes that followed, Nelson, a 19-year-old from Los Angeles, slipped beneath the cold waters and never resurfaced. He is the second person to have drowned at the popular swimming hole southeast of Dorena Lake in as many years.

Amid their shock and grief, Cruz-Contreras and other friends are working to preserve Nelson’s memory the best way they can, by gathering photographs for a slideshow to be shown at a campus vigil tonight.

Cruz-Contreras, a sophomore, said other students told him and his buddies “about this place called Wildwood Falls … It seemed like a good place to go swimming.”

Cruz-Contreras said he and nine others, including Nelson, loaded up a couple of cars and headed to the falls Sunday as temperatures climbed above 80 degrees.

“We got there, and people were jumping in all over the place,” he said. “Then people from our group also jumped in. It came time for Tony to go in. I asked him if he knew how to swim, and he said, ‘Yeah,’ and he got up there and he jumped.”

Nelson jumped in just after 4:30 p.m. Cruz-Contreras was already in the water and another friend then jumped in to try to reach Nelson when they realized he was struggling. The other friend was able to grab onto Nelson, but then they both got pulled under by the falls’ strong undercurrent and the friend had to let go, Cruz-Contreras said.

“I saw his head go under water, and then he never came back up,” Cruz-Contreras said of Nelson.

Afterward, Lane County sheriff’s deputies who arrived told Cruz-Contreras that Nelson’s body was so muscular that it didn’t float in the water. It was a few hours later when a county dive team arrived and retrieved Nelson’s body from the bottom of the pool.

Cruz-Contreras said he met Nelson three weeks into the school year last fall, and they quickly became friends. The two were going to be roommates next year.

“We were best friends. We spent a lot of time together,” Cruz-Contreras said. “Now, I’m just trying to do everything I can so that his memory is well-preserved and represented. Tony was the type of guy who transcended all kinds of labels. Lots of people had a lot of love for him.”

Nelson was talented in several areas, including music, computer science and athletics, Cruz-Contreras said. It was that array of talents that brought Nelson closer to a lot of different people, he said.

“He was a good guy, and everyone knew that,” he said.

A Facebook page called “Vigil For Tony” has been created to spread the word about tonight’s event, and more than 400 people had joined it by midday Wednesday.

The spot where Nelson died is inviting but dangerous. Last July, a 16-year-old boy drowned at Wildwood Falls trying to save his younger brother, who had fallen in and ultimately survived.

There is a small underwater cavern where people can become trapped, authorities have said. Multiple other drownings have occurred in that spot, dating back to at least the 1970s. A 27-year-old Eugene man died in 1999, and a 16-year-old girl drowned in 1996.

“It’s a dangerous place to recreate because the falls create a violent undercurrent,” Sheriff Sgt. Carrie Carver said today. “And there are deep areas where people can become trapped or sucked under and pinned.”

The spring runoff can also make the water more cold than people expect, and the temperature can shock the body when people jump in, she said.

Authorities suggest that everyone wear life jackets and know the area where they’re swimming, including what’s beneath the water’s surface. There are a number of rocks very close to the surface of the water at the falls, Carver said.

Temperatures are expected to climb into the 80s again this weekend.

Although drowning is suspected, the Lane County medical examiner has not yet determined an official cause of death in Nelson’s case.

Carver said the cliff that Nelson jumped from was approximately 15 feet above the water.

Follow Chelsea on Twitter @chelseagorrow. Email chelsea.gorrow@registerguard.com.

When/where: 7 p.m. today at Erb Memorial Union Amphitheater on UO campus

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