Chaffee officials ID rafters in fatal co-worker outing
By Claire Trageser and Kieran Nicholson
The Denver Post
Two Denver-area residents who drowned in a rafting accident on the Arkansas River were identified this morning. Jimmy Nakama, 40, of Littleton and Thomas Spicknall, 36, of Centennial died in Tuesday's accident near Buena Vista, according to Chaffee County Coroner Randy Amettis. Autopsies are being performed today, Amettis said. Two others in the raft, also from the metro area, survived. The were identified as David Buckley, 42, of Franktown and Abbigal Dodson, 26, of Englewood. Nakama's family released a statement today.
"Jimmy was a much-loved husband, father, son and brother. He was the center of a small but close family. He was loved by the people he worked with, the people he went to school with, the athletic teams he coached and the neighborhood in which he lived. His death has left a terrible hole in the center of all our lives," the statement said. A soccer and baseball coach, Nakama was born in Littleton and graduated from the University of Colorado. He is survived by his wife, Gretchen, and two children, Emmitt, 12, and Eva, 9.
All four people in the rafting party were co-workers at Emergency Medical Services Corp. in Greenwood Village. Doug Moore, public-relations manager with EMSC, said employees were shaken over the incident and taking the deaths hard. "They were both really great employees," he said. "They would bend over to do anything for you. It is a very sad and tragic loss." Both men worked in information technology for the company, Nakama for 12 years and Spicknall for eight years, Moore said. Grief counselors were brought to the company's offices this morning. "We're trying to make the best decisions to lead them through this crisis," Moore said. Moore said the company also will try to aid the families of the victims, as well as Buckley and Dodson, the survivors. The company released a statement today on the accident and deaths. "The EMSC family suffered a tragic loss Tuesday," William Sanger, chairman and chief executive, said in the release. "We all are shocked and saddened at the deaths of our two colleagues. Both were longtime employees of the company who were loved and respected by their co-workers. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and loved ones."
At about noon Tuesday, the group put their raft in a Class 5 rapids section of the river by U.S. 24 north of Buena Vista called "the Numbers," according to the Chaffee County Sheriff's Office. The group quickly hit severe rapids, and Spicknall and Nakama were thrown from the raft. State officials have warned boaters and rafters about high-water flows on that particular stretch of river. Dodson and Buckley pulled Spicknall from the river. He was unconscious, so they performed CPR. Nakama was found 7 miles downstream.
The Sheriff's Office said in a news release that all four members of the rafting party were wearing life vests. They had brought helmets but had left them in the vehicle. Buckley told deputies he had 25 years of rafting experience and had been on the Numbers section of the Arkansas several times. The rest of the party were rafting novices.
"Jimmy died going on what he thought was a recreational float trip with an old friend whom he trusted," the Nakama family statement said. "He had floated with that friend before and considered him a competent rafter. He trusted that friend to be knowledgeable of the river and conditions. He trusted him with his life, and now he's gone. "Do not float the river without examining the river, the flow, the recommendations of the state and local agencies that manage the rivers, the experience level of the guide and the equipment used," the statement continued. "Don't maximize excitement at the expense of safety. It's dangerous."
The group was on the Pine Creek Rapids section of the river. The state issued a boater's advisory for that section a month ago, warning of the high-water flow. The Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area recommends that rafters avoid the Pine Creek section of the river when it is flowing faster than 1,250 cubic feet a second. Those rapids were flowing at 1,840 cubic feet a second at the time of the accident, according to the Sheriff's Office. "No commercial operators have been up there at all," said Duke Bradford, chairman of the Colorado River Outfitters Association. "This is not something that sprung up and surprised people.
At least four people have drowned in the state's rivers in the past 30 days, and the National Park Service has urged visitors to stay back from streams and rivers. The rescue effort Tuesday included firefighters, deputies and emergency responders from Chaffee County and Salida, as well as Arkansas Headwaters State Park rangers and personnel from Arkansas River Outfitters, a group of rafting guides and outfitters, said Deb Frazier, spokeswoman for Colorado State Parks.
Two die at Pine Creek 1,840 cfs river flow exceeds AHRA high water advisory Kevin Hoffman Mail Staff Writer Two men died after their private raft overturned on the Arkansas River about a mile south of the Pine Creek put-in north of Buena Vista about noon Tuesday. Chaffee County Sheriff Tim Walker said both victims were men in their 40s from the Denver area. Walker reported the three men and one woman launched their raft from the Pine Creek put-in.
A short distance downstream the rapid dumped the raft, tossing the two victims into the river. Two rafters remaining in the boat pulled one victim into the raft, unresponsive, and immediately initiated cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The raft landed near the Numbers launch site near mile marker 200 on U.S. 24. It was met there by Chaffee County Emergency Services personnel who transported the victim to Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center in Salida where he was later pronounced dead.
Meanwhile, rescuers located the second victim seven miles downstream near Harvard Estates. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Walker said the other two rafters escaped injury. Chaffee County Coroner Randy Amettis said Tuesday evening names of the victims were being withheld pending notification of next of kin. He said autopsies are scheduled today.
Pine Creek is a Class V rapid, characterized by professionals as long, violent and extremely difficult. At the time of the incident, flow in the Arkansas River was recorded at 1,840 cubic feet per second at the Granite gauge about 3 miles upstream.
Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area officials issue a high water advisory for Pine Creek rapid when river flow at the Granite gauge reaches 1,250 cfs. The advisory is a recommendation that commercial outfitters not run that section. If commercial companies choose to boat through, they are required to have multiple boats or a safety kayaker. Private boaters don't face the same restrictions.