Woman dies near Lake Tahoe waterfall, firefighters say

LAKE TAHOE, Calif. -- A woman has died after she fell while reaching for a tree branch near a waterfall at Lake Tahoe.

The North Tahoe Fire Protection District identified the woman as 35-year-old Stephanie Espinosa, an entrepreneur and mother of two.

Espinosa was hiking with her girlfriend at Lake Tahoe's Eagle Falls, near Emerald Bay, when she lost her footing and went over the falls, according to the North Tahoe Fire Protection District.

"Stephanie was the core of our family. Growing up she was more of a mother to me than an older sister," her brother Nick Martinez told ABC News. "Not having her here right now and trying to even start your day, we're just sort of at a loss."

Williams was the mother of two boys, ages 12 and 14, according to her brother, Nick Martinez.

Martinez said he found out the news as he was picking up his own two daughters from school.

"It was extremely difficult. As soon as they got in my car I got a call from my mother, who was telling me that her girlfriend told her that Stephanie had fallen into a waterfall and they can't find her. ... It just didn't seem real."

Williams, who worked as an esthetician, was one of nine children, with Martinez being the only boy. Stephanie was the oldest of his eight sisters.

"When I think back to my furthest memory in life, it's of her," Martinez said. "When we were kids, our mom wasn't really in the picture much and we bounced around a lot as kids, so she became the motherly figure and really protected me from everything growing up -- and in adulthood. ... Stephanie treated everybody like she was their mother."

Authorities initially said that Espinosa was taking pictures near the Eagle Falls waterfall when she lost her footing and fell. The North Tahoe Fire Protection District posted on Facebook on Sunday that it had since learned she was actually reaching for a tree branch.

Eagle Falls is located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, about two hours east of Sacramento. The falls is divided into two parts, the first about 50 feet high and the lower section about 80 feet. Authorities are reminding visitors to be aware of dangers in the area. The fire district warns not to underestimate the power of waterfalls, rivers, and cold water temperatures.

WLS-TV contributed to this report.
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