Two Deaths on the Reventazón Dec 26 2008
Submitted by John Lane on Thu, 01/01/2009 - 12:06am.
[This narrative attempts to place the two tragic deaths in Costa Rica in some sort of early context. This account is as I witnessed the incident that day. -JL]
We'd been in Costa Rica for five days when a terrible accident occured. From South Carolina we'd contracted with Jeremy Garcia's Costa Rica Adventures for six days of Christmas paddling. We wanted a custom trip with some flexibility and we'd found Jeremy's company because of his good website. I planned to kayak some but mostly to raft with my wife while our sons (Rob 22 and Russell 19) kayaked. Jeremy scheduled us to paddle the Pejibaye, a two-day overnight on the Pacuare, the Upper Upper Pacuare, the Florida Section of the Reventazón, and finally, the Pascua Section of the Reventazón on the day before we were to leave for the US.
We arrived in San Jose on Monday Dec 22 in the afternoon. Jeremy picked us up with his driver Christian. They were friendly and we had a good drive to Turrialba. The week went well. I kayaked on Tuesday with the boys on the Pejibaye and on Wednesday and Thursday Betsy and I paddled in an oar raft rowed by Alex Segura (from Costa Rica Extreme) who was working the trip for Jeremy. We stayed in Alex's camp Christmas Eve. Christmas day we got off the Pacuare and planned to paddle the Upper Upper Pacuare the next morning. Alex was supposed to be with us again.
When Jeremy left us on Thursday night at our hotel he told us Betsy and I would be in duckies the next day with Alex and him on the Upper Upper Pacuare and the boys would paddle kayaks. That night Alex called the hotel to tell us he would not be with us the next day. He said things had changed. We'd bought some sponsorship tees from him for the Costa Rican Raft Team so we said we'd leave the money for him at the front desk. It rained most of Thursday night in Turrialba.
Jeremy was supposed to pick us up at 9:30 for the Upper Upper trip. He arrived at 9:15, said he had things to do and would return at 10. At 10 he returned and loaded us in the van, and then said there had been a change of plans. Because of the overnight rain he couldn't take us into "the canyon" and so he'd switched the trip from the Upper Upper to "the Florida Section" of the Reventazón, "class II/III." We'd return to the Upper Upper Pacuare on Saturday. He also said that he'd taken on a few more guests who would be going with us and we needed to swing by his shop and pick them up. When we arrived at CR Adventures, guides were loading another van with another raft. A couple from Utah (two geology graduate students, Bryce and Orion) came to get in the van with us. There was a Costa Rican group ready to get in the other van-an older and younger woman, a young man, and a very young girl. One other man in their group looked maybe to be an American, a tall gray-haired man. (Later we would find out he is Dutch.)
We loaded up and headed for the river. It was still raining a little as we left Turrialba, but it looked as if it could burn off and we'd have another beautiful day in Costa Rica. As we drove the highway over to the Reventazón I remember looking out the window and noting that it had rained very hard the night before. There were some fresh washouts along the road and the creeks were running brown. I asked Jeremy if the river would be higher than normal, and he said, "No, normal flow." Earlier in the week Jeremy had made a big deal explaining how the rivers would get progressively bigger for us as the trip progressed, ending in the big, big water of the Rio Reventazón's Pascua Section on Sunday, so I was expecting big water.
What I saw when we arrived at our put-in surprised me a little though. The river looked swollen to me. I'd seen flooded rivers before and this one had the signs. It was dark brown and there was a great deal of debris coming downstream-small trees, coconuts. Not a big flood, but definitely an over-night gully washer flood. I commented on this to Bryce and Orion and they said they had been to a Reventazón dam upstream on their trip, and a local had commented on how much water they were releasing. On the Pacuare the two days before both Jeremy and Alex had commented on all the "new" rapids on the river and how they had to learn new lines. Jeremy had told us that the Pacuare had been closed 3 weeks because of high water in the weeks before we arrived. Checking news reports it now seems Costa Rica had seen extensive and massive flooding all over the country in the weeks before our arrival.
As the guides loaded the boats I stood by the river with Rob and Russell and we talked about the flow. I asked Jeremy what he thought the flow would be, and he said, "8000 cfs, maybe even 10,000." He didn't seem concerned, so neither was I, though I knew 10,000 cfs sounded huge. I just figured since this mostly was a Class II/III section that most everything would wash out to big waves and avoidable holes. The guides took extra time with the safety talk riverside and went over everything they should-swimming positions, paddle rescues, throw bags, kayak rescues. Jeremy explained how these were long violent rapids and a swim was not something we wanted to happen and if someone did fall out to get to shore or back to the boat ASAP.
Though the safety talk was good and thorough, no one at CR Adventures had asked us to sign releases, and none of the guides checked the PFDs once we put them on. At this point Jeremy said the trip should take about two hours and there were at least two class IV rapids he would want to scout on this section. This surprised me a little. The two days before on the Pacuare they didn't scout any of the class IV rapids. Jeremy said we would run the first, "Upper and Lower Bamboo," before we ate lunch.
We loaded the boats and set out on the Rio Reventazón about noon. In my raft were Bryce and Orion upfront, Betsy and I in the next compartment, and Jeremy guiding our raft. The tall, curly-headed CR Adventure guide guided the other raft. In his raft were the older gray-haired man, the older woman, her two daughters, and her older daughter's boyfriend. The young girl looked to be around 10. There were 15 of us on the water total. The geologists were experienced rafters and I remember thinking when I felt the power of the water under us how glad I was they were in our boat. We practiced our strokes and I felt confident we could move the raft around in the big water that was coming.
One safety kayak went ahead. This safety kayaker we called "The Indian" because we did not know his name. He was dark-skinned and had a very sharp nose and a nice smile. Behind us came Luis, a very good kayaker/safety boater we'd paddled with on the Pejibaye on Tuesday. Our boys were excited. They both had big grins on their faces as we set out. The first rapid was just below the put-in, a hard left turn with a big wave train. We hugged the river left bend and missed most of the big waves, as did the kayakers behind us. I remember seeing Russell's eyes get big as he looked down into the terminal breaking wave in the wave train. It must have been 6' or 7' tall! The river took an even tighter left turn and there was a big, big swirly eddy and difficult eddy line at the bottom. Rob flipped on the eddy line but rolled up quickly.
Soon downstream Jeremy pulled us all over on a cobble bar and said we were approaching class IV, "Upper and Lower Bamboo." He jumped out and all the guides and kayakers headed down to scout. Some of them only scouted the upper approach, but Jeremy and Luis scouted to the end of the long sweeping rapid. It took them a long time to get down and back. I could see that the river constricted as it swept around the bend to the left. I could see tall cut banks all along the way. It was impossible to see the whole rapid from one spot it was so long.
Jeremy returned and said that there was a big, big hole on river left and a very big rock in the middle of the rapid at the bottom. We would have to work right to get around the big hole and then work back center/left to avoid washing onto the pillow rock. He explained it twice to the kayakers. He seemed a little concerned with what he'd seen around the bend but ready to go. We all got back in the boats and the safety boater took off down the rapid first. By this time it was raining hard and it made the river seem darker than it was. We followed, but caught on a small rock out from shore and the other raft overtook us and passed us. The other three kayakers were behind us. When we came around the bend the rain was pounding down. It looked as if we were headed down an escalator of brown water spotted with waves and small pour overs.
Soon we were swept around the bend and I got my first look at the big black rock below we had to avoid. At the bottom of the rapid it seemed half the river was piling against a huge boulder and trailing off in fingers between rocks to the right. There was a big cliff to the far right. The river was constricted left by the big hole. The route through was a hard ferry in front of the rock. The other raft was already 50 yards in front of us and I watched in horror as it rode completely up on the pillowed rock, hung there for a second, and then dumped everyone into the river.
It was obvious to Jeremy by this time that as hard as we were paddling, we were not going to make the move either. At the last possible moment he shifted his calls from "paddle forward," to "back paddle." He probably saved us with that call. We somehow backferried in front of the rock and slipped between two or three rocks down behind the big rock. I remember fear that we would pin on the guard rocks and be in an even worse situation than the first raft. At least the other raft had come easily off the pillowed rock. But we slipped through the rocks backward and dropped down into a hydraulic and all collapsed inward into the raft.
Jeremy was already directing traffic throughout this chaos. "Get the swimmers!" he was yelling to the kayakers. "Get the swimmers!" We popped through the hole and I saw the kayakers had come through the rapid safely, but I didn't see anyone swimming. All I saw was gear as the lunch pail and a yellow helmet floated past, and just to our right on an eddy line, an empty snapped up PFD. Betsy grabbed the jacket and pulled it into the raft.
By this time we were around the bend and headed into the next rapid. When we were near the top of it we saw on our right the little girl clinging to some rocks in the middle of the river. Orion, one of the geologists in the front, reached out and plucked her off the rocks with one arm and deposited her in the raft. She was weeping and said she thought her leg was hurt. At that point we worked over to a cobble bar on river right, beached the raft, and Jeremy jumped out and headed back upstream. We got the girl out and made her comfortable on the beach, covered her with spray jackets and life jackets. It was raining but very warm. She was screaming for her mother and said her leg hurt and she could not bend it.
Orion found the first aid kit in the boat and took out a cold pack for her and it seemed to calm her. I looked up the beach and down. Upstream the terminus of the cliff jutting out into the water blocked our view of the big rock where the spill had happened. Downstream the rapids continued and the river slammed into a tall cliff and then made a sharp left turn. I couldn't see where the other raft had ended up, and it was impossible to scale the cliff to get upstream. I followed Jeremy up the cobble bar and Rob was pulling the older woman to shore upstream from where our raft was safely beached. The woman seemed to be ok and she headed down to the raft to comfort her daughter. Jeremy ran over to Rob took his spray skirt, his paddle, and his river shoes. Rob and Jeremy made a quick count, and Jeremy looked back at me and said, "I think we have them all."
Rob and I watched as Jeremy ferried across the river and worked up toward where the others were stranded out of our sight. I asked Rob what he had seen and he said he had seen someone clinging to he back of the overturned raft as it headed downstream. When Jeremy disappeared from view I headed with Rob back down to our raft and then ran down as far below as I could get on the cobble bar. I wanted to get a visual sighting of the second raft and see how many were safe down with it. I stood on a big boulder and looked downstream. I could see the second raft beached on a cobble bar just above the second rapid downstream. I could see what I thought were three people standing with it. I waved my hands and one of them-maybe Russell-waved back.
At this point we were strung out over maybe a half-mile of river around two big bends. There was no doubt in my mind that there were people upstream and they were alive. There were seven on the beach counting us-Betsy, Rob, Bryce, Orion, the little girl, her mother, and me. And I had spotted three below and Jeremy was around the bend in the kayak. There were eleven we could count for certain. That left four unaccounted for-and everyone's concern was beginning to build. Our hope was that the missing members of the party were either safe upstream or unseen on the beach below us. Betsy walked to the end of the beach and looked downstream as well and she told me it seemed there were only three others down there and she was pretty sure one of them was Russell.
About an hour passed with nothing happening. We sat on the beach and waited. I got anxious and decided I was going to walk upstream to the cliff. When I got up near where the cliff cut off access I was surprised to see Jeremy come around the corner in the rapid with the two stranded rafters clinging to his bow and stern. He was yelling for them to kick their feet. When he got into the heavier water his red kayak flipped. Jeremy tried one roll and popped out of his boat after one attempt. I watched helplessly as the three heads (two yellow raft helmets and Jeremy's red helmet) floated past the beach and down into the strong rapid below. I ran down the beach and watched as all three of them we slammed into the rock wall 200 yards below us, rode up on it, and bobbed there before washing off. I lost track of them as they were flushed into the next rapid down toward where the raft was beached.
We waited another 15 minutes or so, unsure what exactly had happened. The curly headed raft guide somehow made it back up to us. (He was one of the missing four we had not accounted for.) Had he been upstream on the other side? Had he somehow ferried across? He put us all into the raft-seven of us counting him-and we descended to the cobble beach where the other raft was beached. We made it down without incident and once we landed I walked down to see who was waiting below. There was Luis, the Indian, Russell, and the old man and the older girl. They had swum down with Jeremy on the kayak and then through the rapid.
Jeremy was not there. The old man and the older girl were huddled together. I asked how he was doing and he pulled up his pants legs to show me his cut and bruised legs. The older girl was crying. The old man explained that it was her boyfriend that was missing. So at this point we had everyone but Jeremy and the boyfriend. Where was Jeremy? No one knew. Russell said he had last seen him wash past the cobble bar far out in the river and around the next bend. Russell said he was not trying to swim to shore but he'd seemed calm. He yelled something to Russell but he couldn't hear it over the roar of the water. I figured from this Jeremy had floated downstream to get out beyond the next bend.
The curly-headed guide divided everyone into two groups. He explained there was a bridge about 10 minutes downstream (the Siquirres - Turrialba road) and we'd take out there instead of at our primary take-out still another half-hour downstream. He guided one raft, and Luis guided the other one. Russell headed down in his kayak. We paddled through some big waves and around the next bend. We didn't see Jeremy anywhere.
Everyone in the rafts was in shock and we just paddled hard. We wanted to get off the river. We saw the bridge and paddled even harder. We pulled the boats out, and in about 10 minutes there were already police there. I figured Jeremy must have called them somehow. But soon it became obvious that no one had seen Jeremy since he disappeared around the bend upstream. It was also obvious now that the young man had not made it down and the grief was beginning to settle in. We were still missing two, but I was not worried about Jeremy. I figured he'd somehow show up at any moment. He had plenty of river experience and would find a way to get off the river.
We waited and more police came and an ambulance came and splinted the little hurt girl's leg and then they took her away, along with all of the other members of her family. That left my family, Bryce, and Orion there at the scene. We walked up to the bridge. There were three or four men looking upstream and soon the curly-headed guide came into view. He'd caught a ride up to the put-in and had paddled a kayak all the way back down. He beached his boat and walked up to one of the vans. Orion went over and asked him what he'd found upstream. He said he'd found Jeremy's body. "He said Jeremy's drowned," Orion told us when he returned.
There are so many unanswered questions when we left the scene. Was Jeremy injured in the swim? Had he blown out his shoulder trying to roll the kayak with the rafters clinging to it? How high was the river that day? Had Upper and Lower Bamboo changed drastically in the floods from weeks before? Did the young man's life jacket come off? Was it his jacket we pulled into the boat with us from behind the rock? There was nothing else we could do.
The Costa Rica Adventures guides called us a taxi and we went back the hour-long drive over the mountains to Turrialba. It was almost 6pm when we got in the taxi. When we arrived back in town we drove in past Costa Rica Adventures and there were already dozens of cars gathered out front. We tried our best to gather information through our hotel manager. I ran the scene over and over in my head that night in my dreams. Next morning we heard they had not yet found the lost rafter. Someone said he was a doctor from San Jose.
[Since returning we've discovered the missing man is José Andrés Santos Mora, a young attorney from Zapote] We left Saturday on the first flight we could get out of San Jose.
John Lane www.kudzutelegraph.com Spartanburg SC