Accident Database

Report ID# 1076

  • Swim into Strainer
  • Does not Apply
  • Cold Water
  • One Boat Trip

Accident Description

Park names victims, mum on raft accident

The park had held the names pending the notification of family members. Still, details of what led to the fatal accident and how rescuers pulled the other 10 people to safety are scarce.

By Noah Brenner


June 05,2006 A South Carolina couple and a Louisiana woman died in a rafting accident on the Snake River on Friday in Grand Teton National Park, according to Grand Teton spokeswoman Joan Anzelmo. John and Elizabeth Rizas, ages 63 and 58 respectively, of Beaufort, S.C., and Linda Clark, 69, of Shreveport, La, drowned, when their raft capsized less than a mile south of the old Bar BC dude ranch near Moose. The park had held the names pending the notification of family members.

Still, details of what led to the fatal accident and how rescuers pulled the other 10 people to safety are scarce. Almost two and a half days after the incident, Anzelmo would not release the name of the raft guide or how the boat turned over in the first place. Our rangers are conducting an investigation, and we will release that information at the proper time, she said. Essentially it was a boating accident where the raft capsized. She did say that boats from the Triangle X Ranch (National Park Raft Trips) and Solitude Scenic Float Trips Inc. were first on the scene, and those boats picked up as many (people from the water) as they could.

Grand Teton Lodge officials also declined to comment on any aspect of the accident. It is still an open investigation by the Park Service, and all facts and details have to come from them,? said Angela Berardino, spokeswoman for Grand Teton Lodge's parent company, Vail Resorts Inc. ?When the investigation closes we will have a statement. Anzelmo confirmed that the rafters were part of a 13-person scenic boat trip led by the Grand Teton Lodge Company. The trip covered 10 miles from Dead Man's Bar to the Moose boat landing. All 13 people on the trip (12 passengers and one guide) were thrown into the water when the raft capsized. Rangers launched multiple rescue boats just after 11 a.m. on Friday. There was a helicopter on scene to transport rafters from the river to waiting ambulances. Jackson Hole Fire and EMS, and Teton County Search and Rescue volunteers helped with the recovery efforts. Of the victims, two received CPR but did not revive. Rescuers pulled the third victim out from a log jam downstream. The Park Service would not release any further information on the details of the rescue until after completing its investigation.

Everyone in the raft wore class five personal floatation devices, which have the highest level of floatation available. At the time of the accident, the Snake River was flowing at 7,960 cubic feet per second.

(From the NPS Morning Report)

Grand Teton National Park (WY) Update on Fatal Boating Accident Additional details have been received about the accident on the Snake River that resulted in the deaths of three visitors on a commercial boating trip. The Teton Interagency Dispatch Center received a call from the Grand Teton Lodge Company just before 11 a.m. on June 2nd, reporting that one of their scenic raft trip boats had tipped over in the ?Many Moose? area of the Snake River, one-half mile downstream of the historic Bar BC dude ranch. Twelve passengers were spilled out of the raft and into the Snake River as the boat became lodged against a root ball of a live tree that had recently flushed into that section of the river during spring run-off.

The 15-passenger raft, carrying twelve people and one boatman, had launched earlier that morning to float a ten-mile stretch of river within the park. Boatmen from four commercial float trip raft companies, who were in the vicinity at the time of the accident, assisted in getting nine passengers out of the water and onto the riverbank. As previously reported, the remaining three people drowned in this accident. Park rangers, a Teton Interagency contract helicopter, Jackson Hole Fire/EMS, and Teton County Search and Rescue volunteers also assisted in the search and rescue operation.

The section of the Snake River below Bar BC ranch braids into three narrow channels. The center channel, where the accident occurred, takes a slight curve to the right, making it challenging to get a clear downstream view until a boat has fully entered into the channel's flow. A live tree had recently been uprooted and flushed into this channel, where it was temporarily snagged on a submerged gravel bar. The tree was swept away with the river's flow by the following morning. The force of the river current pushed the raft toward the tree, where it bumped into the exposed root ball and became pinned by the current. The swift flowing water then pushed the boat up and into a vertical position, leaving the passenger compartment facing the upstream flow. As the boat tipped onto its side, the passengers fell into the water.

The Snake River is a natural, multi-channeled river with woody debris deposits and gravel bars scattered across along the length of its route. Along the 25-mile river corridor from Jackson Lake Dam to the Moose Bridge, there are only four river landings, spaced several miles apart. Much of the river course lies remote from any road access. The river current can be strong enough to push debris and load debris at river bends or gravel bars.

The investigation of this boating accident is continuing. It?s estimated that there have been 20 fatalities associated with recreation on the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park since record keeping began in the 1930s.

[Submitted by Joan Anzelmo and Jackie Skaggs, Public Affairs Specialists] Article

Snake River's rage turned float trip tragic

By Rich Tosches Denver Post Staff Writer Moose, Wyo. Not long after the first golden rays of the morning sun had sparkled on the water June 2, guests at the Jackson Lake Lodge roused themselves from their rustic cabins, devoured breakfast and headed out for the day's activities. Tourists who'd signed up for a scenic, 10-mile float trip through Grand Teton National Park climbed into vans and were taken to Deadmans Bar - the site where their rafts would be put into the rushing Snake River. The passengers, who'd paid $45 each, were briefed on safety. They signed liability waivers, though it's not clear how many, if any, actually read them. After all, this was not a wild white-water ride like 30 miles downstream in the Snake River Canyon. This was a float. Only the guide had oars. They joked and bonded the way tourists do when they're tossed together on an out-of-the-ordinary adventure.

About one hour into the scheduled 90-minute trip, a bald eagle lifted off from the top of a tree and circled above the raft. The group gazed at the majestic bird against the blue sky. When they looked back downstream, the laughing stopped. Rising from the cold, surging water was a dead cottonwood. Limbs and debris had piled against it during the night. The twisted logjam rose like a serpent. The guide dug his oars savagely into the water and pulled until the veins in his arms bulged. Passenger James Clark, 71, stiffened. He reached an arm out toward his wife and then shouted. "We're not going to make it."

As the travelers prepared for their adventure, the float trip was viewed with both anxiety and nonchalance. A few days earlier, John and Betty Ann Rizas were getting ready for the adventure. John, 63, a dentist forced into retirement six years ago because of arthritis in his hands, and Betty Ann, 58, who worked some 25 years as a schoolteacher, were headed to Wyoming to see the mountains and the elk and the bison. And to float the Snake River in a raft. The night before leaving their Beaufort, S.C., home, Betty Ann called her brother in Yuma, Ariz. She knew he had floated the same stretch of river a few years earlier. She'd never been in a raft. She was uneasy. "I told her not to worry," the Rev. John Friel said. "I told her it would be nothing more than a pleasant, leisurely float." John Rizas, a Navy veteran, and Betty Ann would be joined on the trip by two of his three brothers and their wives.

Tom Rizas lived in Georgia. Bob Rizas had settled in New Jersey, not far from where the boys were raised in the town of Neptune. The brothers had stayed close over the decades and had done a lot of things together. But nothing like this. In Shreveport, La., Linda Clark, 69, also was packing for a journey. It was her husband's idea. She had married retired Judge James Clark some six years earlier, and he wanted to show her the world. They'd been to the Bahamas and to Rome and to other places. But he spent his life in the South and lately had dreamed of seeing the wide-open spaces of the American West. The Rizas clan - Bob and Ruth, Tom and Patty and John and Betty Ann - and the Clarks were part of a tour group that had met during the final week of May in Salt Lake City. Joining the gathering there were Larry "Bubba" Wilson and his wife, Joyce, from Georgia. Just that week, Bubba had sold his business, ending a 40-year career selling insurance. He was now retired. On June 1, the group - 44 people from across the country - boarded a bus and left Salt Lake. After a long ride, they checked in to the Jackson Lake Lodge, a retreat set within Teton park featuring expansive views of Jackson Lake and the jagged peaks shooting some 6,000 feet skyward from its western shore. That night, most of them wandered around the lodge into the evening, talking and laughing and getting to know one another as the sun dropped below the Tetons. In the morning, the Rizas families, the Clarks and the Wilsons would take that raft trip. The one Betty Ann was worried about. "We talked about it a little," said Bubba Wilson, "but it was not a big deal. To be honest, the raft trip was kind of a ho-hum thing." Forces of nature The snow-fed Snake River swells each spring, and one of its most common victims is the trees in its roaring path. The snow melted quickly under a hot spring sun this year in northwestern Wyoming. The cold, sparkling water first trickled and then raced down hundreds of small creeks and filled Jackson Lake to its pine- and willow-blanketed shores. The water then thundered from beneath the lake's dam.

And as it does each spring, the Snake River roared to life. Downstream from the dam, a dead cottonwood clung stubbornly to the earth. It had been killed years earlier, probably by the ravenous gnawing of beavers that live along the riverbank. After passing alongside for about 40 years, the winding Snake finally swallowed the 50-foot tree whole. From early spring into late summer, the Snake is a formidable river, ranging from 50 to more than 100 yards wide and carrying with it hundreds of downed trees and thousands of branches and limbs. A dangerous snag A guide maneuvers his raft past the recently uprooted cottonwood, but his warning isn't widely circulated. Reed Finlay had been guiding rafts on the Snake for more than a decade. He knew how the water roared past Schwabacher Landing. He knew how rocks made the ride a bit rough past the willows where the tourists often took pictures of moose.

On the evening of June 1, Finlay was about 7 miles into his fourth and final 10-mile trip of the day. As his tourist-filled raft rounded a bend above an area dubbed "Secret Service Out" - named last year after a boat slammed into debris and dumped agents assigned to Vice President Dick Cheney into the drink - Finlay's eyes widened. In the main channel, the old, dead cottonwood rested on its side. The tree had toppled and floated downstream sometime after Finlay's afternoon trip. He made a quick adjustment and moved the raft past the downed tree, which was snagged on a gravel bar. And he let out a sigh of relief. When he got back to boat company headquarters before midnight, he made a note about the cottonwood. It was big and it was dangerous and it blocked the main channel, he wrote.

He posted the note on the bulletin board to alert his fellow raftsmen at Barker-Ewing Float Trips, guides who would be taking more tourists down the river in the morning. Barker-Ewing is one of 10 companies licensed by the National Park Service to take paying passengers down the Snake. That same night, the Rizas brothers and their wives and the Clarks and great big Bubba Wilson and his wife headed for their cabins in the woods as the night grew still. They needed a good night's sleep. Tomorrow would be a big day. Tomorrow they would step cautiously into a big commercial raft and they would float the Snake. Their rafting outfitter, Grand Teton Lodge Co., didn't get Reed Finlay's note. The Grand Teton Lodge boatmen didn't know about the cottonwood tree. And in the dark of a wilderness night in some of America's most staggeringly beautiful land, the heavy tree and its great root ball held fast to a gravel bar. And the relentless, frigid water of the Snake roared past.

Float trip turns tragic Amid beautiful vistas, the passengers' awe turns to terror as the cottonwood upends their raft. The group stood at the Deadmans Bar launch preparing for their float. This was the final chance for a bathroom stop. Some of the men joked about not needing the facility. After all, they laughed, there were endless miles of woods and trees surrounding them. They were briefed on how to wear their Class V life jackets, the highest-rated available. They were told to make sure all three clasps were fastened and the straps pulled snugly.

Betty Ann Rizas was uneasy. She asked what to do if they fell in. Float on your back, feet downstream, and make your way to a gravel bar, they were told by the guide. He was a tall, athletic young man who identified himself as Daniel and said he was a college student in Utah. This, he told them, was the first day of his fourth season guiding rafts on the Snake.

The safety talk lasted about one minute. And then, the passengers piled into the raft. Another Grand Teton Lodge Co. trip had headed downstream about 10 minutes earlier. Bubba Wilson settled his 6-foot-2, 250-pound frame at the front, on the left side. Joyce snuggled in beside him. Beside her were James and Linda Clark. The six Rizases filled the back of the raft. Dr. Jon Shaw and Maria Urrutia sat on the side opposite the Clarks and Wilsons. The 20-foot heavy rubber craft was nudged away from the launch site and caught the swift current. Daniel stood and stroked the water gently with his oars, and the raft responded easily, gliding across the glassy, slick water. As they moved, Betty Ann Rizas sat, worrying, on the edge of the raft. Joyce Wilson put aside the thought that she couldn't swim. She and Linda Clark were talking so much about the scenery and their homes and the new white, straw cowboy hat that rested atop Linda's head that Bubba Wilson switched places with his wife so the two women could talk without yelling across his face.

There was an anxious moment when the raft slid across a shallow spot and bumped the river bottom. The thump was hardest below Betty Ann Rizas. She jumped. Daniel asked if she was OK. Slightly shaken by the heavy thud, she settled back onto her spot on the edge of the raft. She said it would be nice if it had handles, something to grab onto. Then, at about 10:40 on that sunny morning, the group watched in awe as the female bald eagle left its nest high atop a pine tree where she and her mate had raised young eagles for several years. The cottonwood loomed around the bend. As the raft bore down on the logjam, John and Betty Ann Rizas - as they had done since they met - stuck together. And braced themselves.

Bubba Wilson said he knew something was wrong. "Daniel, can you get through this?" he hollered to their guide. The college student didn't answer. He was trying to get around the logjam, but the raft was sideways and couldn't fit down the channel. He worked the oars hard, but the back third of the raft didn't make it. It slammed into the cottonwood logjam with a ferocious noise as branches and limbs snapped. With one side of the raft pinned hard against the debris, the river grabbed the other side and drove it up and onto the root ball of the tree. The raft was vertical. All of the passengers and the guide were thrown violently into the heavy, racing water.

The water was 42 degrees - cold enough to make a person unconscious in about 15 minutes. The first to hit the water was James Clark. "It just slammed me down," he said. "It was moving so fast, and there was nothing to grab onto. I hit another log and went under, and all the time I'm looking for my wife." Linda Clark went under the logjam and became ensnarled in the branches. As the raft stood on its side, Bubba Wilson looked at his wife and shouted, "I can't believe this is happening." For a second he saw a look of terror on her face. And then he was under water and being swept away. He opened his eyes in a frantic attempt to find Joyce. "And I saw her," he said. "She was under the water, too, a few feet below me. There were bubbles coming out of her nose." He lunged and grabbed onto her life jacket. Somehow, he burst toward the surface, his left arm around his wife, both of them battered by submerged tree limbs.

They gulped air at the surface, and then 64-year- old Bubba Wilson began fighting his way toward another logjam, his arm still wrapped around Joyce. "I told her I'd get us out of there," he said. Reaching the downstream logjam, he lifted Joyce onto some branches. He followed, and they dragged themselves across the debris and onto the warm, wild grass on the riverbank. He had a torn rotator cuff in one shoulder and terrible cuts and bruises over much of his body. Then, in an effort to calm his wife, Bubba said something he now calls stupid. As he was running along the bank to help others, he turned to Joyce, who was lying in the grass. "Don't let the bears get you," he said. Joyce just stared blankly at him. He kept running. There was chaos upstream.

Guide Daniel struggled to reach people. Some were clinging desperately to riverbank branches and bushes. Bob and Ruth and Tom and Patty Rizas had washed onto the pile of debris that had caught their raft. They struggled and crawled and helped one another toward the bank. All four survived.

John and Betty Ann Rizas did not. Both were sucked under the cottonwood. The wild current tore them loose from beneath the logjam just a moment or two later. But it was too late. The river was flowing at 7,960 cubic feet per second on the day of the accident. It peaked 18 days later at a staggering 20,000 cfs. It was, according to James Clark, beyond swift. "I went under water at least three times, and it just swept me away," he said.

As he searched frantically for his wife, James said, his Marine Corps training at Camp Pendleton in California in 1946 flashed through his mind. As a recruit, he said, he'd been tossed into the churning ocean as part of survival training. James said he got angry and turned his rage on the river that had a deadly hold on him. "River, you're not gonna kill me," he recalled thinking. "I have too many people I love and who love me. I will not let you kill me today." After he had fought his way to a pile of sticks and logs and pulled his shoulders out of the water, it was the guide who pulled him onto the bank. "I was pretty beat up, but I know it was Daniel," he said. "I was so cold and weak I couldn't move. I was in that grass for an hour, waiting. And all I could think about was Linda." She wasn't found for more than an hour.

Some three hours after the accident, James waited in a Park Service van in the small hamlet of Moose alongside the river. Another Park Service van pulled up. Paramedics got out. They told James they had a body inside. James, still shivering and wrapped in a blanket, approached. It was Linda. Her forehead was red and covered with welts. "I just sat there with her," he said in a whisper, "and hoped that she didn't feel any pain out there in the river." Awaiting a final report Little has been said officially about the three deaths.

Park leaders say Teton's wonder brings with it inherent risks. The National Park Service and the Grand Teton Lodge Co., a subsidiary of Colorado-based Vail Resorts, have said little about the accident, which happened in an area of the river known as Many Moose. Neither has released the guide's full name. "There is not yet a final accident report," park spokeswoman Joan Anzelmo said last week. "I don't know when one will be available."

About 63,000 people float the Snake with commercial rafting companies inside Teton park each year (another 15,000 go down in private boats). Guides are not licensed, but the Park Service requires that they make five training runs down the 10-mile stretch before taking passengers. Since 1930, about 20 people have died in the Snake within the park's borders. Anzelmo said all but two, a wading fisherman and a hiker who slipped, fell out of rafts or boats while either sightseeing or fishing.

James Clark, Bubba Wilson and others believe there should have been a warning. The cottonwood logjam was spotted the day before the accident. The first of the four Grand Teton Lodge Co. rafts on the deadly day made it safely past the debris pile, swinging hard to the west and navigating an unblocked channel. When the third and fourth Lodge Co. rafts arrived, the guides beached their crafts and began a wild rescue attempt. Those men, whose names have also not been released, pulled several people from the river.

The companies that operate under contract with the park have no system to communicate problems to competing outfits. The area has consistent cellphone coverage that would make communications simple. The Park Service, however, said that's not its business. "If the raft companies want to set up a system to communicate among themselves, that's fine," said park spokeswoman Anzelmo. "But this park is full of wonder around every turn, and that comes with an inherent risk. We are not interested in over-regulating. The Snake River can be huge and dangerous, and it can move trees."

Jill Polhemus of Ocean, N.J., was in the fourth Grand Teton Lodge raft. She was assigned to the ill-fated second raft, but just before it was launched, she scampered to the restroom, missed the launch of her scheduled ride and was reseated in the fourth raft. She videotaped the scene. It starts at 10:53 a.m. The video shows the arrival of the Park Service rescue helicopter and a Park Service emergency raft almost simultaneously at 11:58 a.m. - more than an hour after the raft piled into the logjam. "It was too long," said Polhemus, who had spent two days with the three Rizas families in Salt Lake and in Wyoming.

Anzelmo said the emergency helicopter contracted by the Park Service was, at the moment of the raft accident, undergoing final inspection and certification. The pilot was also receiving his certification. "We can't legally use the helicopter until it and the pilot are certified," she said. "We don't typically have that done and have the helicopter under contract until the first few days of June." The Park Service has no motorized boats or rafts to use in river emergencies. Its rescue rafts float down the river, just like all the other rafts. But the response, she said, was hard and fast. About 35 Teton park rangers responded. Some made it to the river downstream of the crash site and searched for people who might have floated down. But she also said that after the call, it took rangers 45 minutes to pull the rescue raft from its storage area and trailer it to Deadmans Bar on the Snake.

"Unless we had our rescue boat on the river at exactly the point of the accident at exactly the time it happened, we don't think the outcome for those three people who did not survive would have been any different," Anzelmo said. "It was a tragedy and an anomaly, and it all happened within two or three minutes. Today, with all our technology, people want things instantly. In this case they wanted help instantly. We were doing everything we possibly could to get to those people. But the Snake is a fairly remote river."

Struggling to move on At their homes, the survivors wrestle with grief and the pain of how a relaxing trip could go so wrong. James Clark spends most of his time at home in Shreveport these days. He is visited by a steady stream of relatives and old friends. And a few new friends. Last weekend, Bubba and Joyce Wilson made the drive from Georgia to console the man they met in Wyoming. "Linda was a beautiful lady, both in appearance and in her heart," James said. "If someone was in need, Linda was there to help. I'm not adjusting well at all to this, except that I know my life has to go on. I have children and grandchildren, mine and Linda's, and I can't let the accident stop me from living in this world. But I'm very sad every day."

Bob and Ruth Rizas are back at their home in Spring Lake, N.J. Tom and Patty Rizas have returned to their home in Bloomingdale, Ga. They did not want to talk about the accident. The sadness felt by James also pounds at the hearts of those who knew John and Betty Ann Rizas. Friel, Betty Ann's brother, thinks of the phone call the day before the trip began. "I told her it would be OK. ... This has really broken me up," he said softly.

Betty Ann taught at Catholic schools her entire adult life. She finished her career at St. John's School in Hollywood, Md. "She was so kind and so gentle," said Deborah Standish, the assistant principal at St. John's, where Rizas taught from 1990 until 2000. "She just loved the children she taught. And they loved her, too. For years after she retired, they talked about how they missed her." Days before she left on the adventure to Grand Teton National Park, Betty Ann had one more task. She wrote a note on a card, a note to the students whom she left as second-graders in 2000, children who would now be graduating from eighth grade. She asked that someone read it to them. The card arrived at the school Friday, the same day Betty Ann would die. The school learned of her death late that day but decided not to tell the eighth-graders until after Saturday's graduation.

Standish, battling through her tears, stood up at the ceremony and looked at the children who had loved their teacher so. And she read from the card. "When you were my students," it said, "you would go home and report to your parents that Mrs. Rizas said this and Mrs. Rizas said that, as though my words were gospel. Well, I hope that you will listen to me one more time when I ask you to stay close to Our Lord. In that will be your success. "I will be with you in spirit."

Staff writer Rich Tosches writes each Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at

By "michael croslin" in the SwiftH2O Listserve

Wed Jun 7, 2006 2:11 pm (PST) Single boat trips, often sweep rigs, oar in bow and stern, or any set up boat where the volume and size of the river require set up well upstream of obstacles, and the river is well known this is generally safe at moderate flows. Add surprise debri around a blind corner that a big boat cant see, well its very difficult to pull the boat away unless the manuever is pre-planned.

At spring flows, when in doubt scout. Eddy out above the turn on the inside generally, and get a direct view of any surprises waiting around the corner. The volumes are so massive that the entire dynamic of a rapid can change it did here. Unless your boat is fast enough to spin, turn and pull away from obstacles with a few oar strokes then "read on the run" is iffy at best. Remember control of an oar boat comes from "pulling", oar strokes that fight the flow generally, and aggressive ferry angles that expose rafts to side flips and wraps. In big water with big rafts, this requires anticipation and precise upstream positioning to set up manuevers. Surprises are not acceptable. Scout, Scout, SCOUT

Join AW and support river stewardship nationwide!