Accident Database

Report ID# 101633

  • Flush Drowning
  • Head Injury / Concussion
  • Cold Water
  • High Water

Accident Description

Man died of drowning while rafting the Animas River, autopsy confirms

Police records, eyewitness accounts shed light on incident

By Jonathan Romeo Durango Herald

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

A 61-year-old man who died while rafting on the Animas River last weekend died as a result of drowning, the La Plata County coroner determined after an autopsy Wednesday morning. Patrick Southworth of Ballston Lake, New York, is believed to have inhaled water after the shock of hitting the cold waters of the Animas River at the Durango Whitewater Park around 10 a.m. Saturday. Coroner Jann Smith said she believes the combination of shock and inhaling water resulted in Southworth dying relatively soon after entering the river, explaining why he was seen unconscious moments after he fell out of the raft. Despite attempts to revive Southworth, he was pronounced dead at Mercy Regional Medical Center.

According to Southworth’s son-in-law, Matt Malinoski, Southworth and his wife, Patti, had started working this winter on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico as pharmacists at a local hospital. Malinoski said the couple came to Durango for the weekend and planned to go horseback riding and rafting, activities they enjoyed during a similar trip last year in Durango. And like the year before, Southworth and his wife booked a commercial trip on the Animas River’s run through Durango guided by Mountain Waters Rafting, which has been running trips since 1981.

James Wilkes, co-owner of Mountain Waters Rafting since 2011, was at the Durango Whitewater Park at the time of the incident, he said, and saw the events unfold firsthand. The Southworths were on a raft with another couple and a guide, and the group made it through the upper section of rapids, known as the entrance to the Whitewater Park, without incident.

But at Smelter Rapid, one of the biggest features in the park, the raft listed, causing the Southworths to lose their grip, fall and knock the other couple out. This, in turn, caused the boat to turn at an angle that caused the guide to fall out. “It was like a domino effect,” Wilkes said. 

In the water, the group of five people stuck relatively close together, Wilkes said. The other couple was able to self-rescue and swim to the bank on the right side of the river. The guide, noticing that Patti Southworth was struggling, swam to her and helped her get to the east side of the river. Wilkes said he spotted Patrick Southworth immediately after the group fell out and could tell something was wrong and called 911. “He never reacted as a swimmer to help himself,” Wilkes said. “He never made a move. That’s why I knew something was wrong.”

Wilkes ran to his car parked at Santa Rita Park and drove to the U.S. Highway 160/550 bridge just a few hundred yards downstream of the Whitewater Park where he then scrambled down to the river. Wilkes said he saw Southworth’s unresponsive body floating downstream. He took off his clothes, got about 15 feet into the river and was able to get a hold of Southworth just past the nearby pedestrian footbridge. At the same time, the guide raced down the Animas River Trail to where Wilkes was with Southworth. As the two got Southworth to shore, officers arrived on scene and started CPR, even using an automated external defibrillator.

With the river running at 2,700 cubic feet per second, and given the section of river the group swam, Wilkes said there were no particular rapids where Southworth could have become stuck under the surface in recirculating water. And Smith said she found no secondary causes of death common with people who die in rafting accidents, such as a heart attack from the shock of hitting cold water or any injuries to the head.That’s what led Smith to believe Southworth inhaled water at the shock of hitting the water, causing him to drown moments after falling into the river. Wilkes agreed that could explain why he wasn’t seen trying to self-rescue.

Mountain Waters Rafting took two days off after the incident and is offering counseling to staff. Always looking to learn from tragedy, Wilkes said in this instance, every protocol was followed and every safety precaution was taken.  Southworth was wearing a personal flotation device. The raft didn’t flip – it was momentarily turned in a big rapid, and the Southworths’ lost their grip. And after the group was in the water, the guide followed a textbook rescue, which Wilkes said likely saved Patti Southworth’s life.

Eyewitness reports and police incident reports contradict details shared for an earlier story. Durango Police Cmdr. Ray Shupe said no charges are expected as a result of the incident. Police records of the incident obtained by The Durango Herald corroborate many of the details in Wilkes’ account. “There’s no would of, could of, should of,” Wilkes said. “The only realistic way to have avoided this was to stay home and not do anything. It’s just a really sad accident, and there’s no one to blame.” 

Rafting deaths on commercial trips on the Animas River’s run through Durango are rare. A database of river accidents kept by American Whitewater shows zero deaths on commercial trips in that section. According to Herald archives, however, a 56-year-old man died on a commercial trip in 2015 after a raft flipped at Smelter Rapid when the Animas was running around 4,000 cfs.

Patti Southworth, 60, was taken to Mercy for injuries but was released the next day, Malinoski said. Southworth’s two daughters have traveled to the area to be with their mother, he said, and bring Southworth back east.“They’re having a rough time,” Malinoski said. “He was a very fun, outgoing guy. He just enjoyed anything outdoors and traveling.”

According to his obituary, Patrick Southworth was born in Troy, New York, and graduated from the Albany College of Pharmacy in 1983. He met Patti in pharmacy school their freshman year, and they married in 1981. In recent years, the couple were working as pharmacists for the Indian Health Service, helping vulnerable populations on the Navajo Nation, the Zuni Nation and the Chippewa Nation, to name a few.

On Monday, Patti Southworth and her two daughters went to the spot where Southworth was recovered from the Animas River and placed a memorial. They invited Wilkes, as well as the guide of the raft that day.“They’re really great people,” Wilkes said. “I’m so sad for her. It’s a tragic and sad thing that’s happened.”

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