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Accident Description

Guides' heroism teaches lessons

Tom Stienstra

San Francisco Chronicle Sunday, October 3, 2010

Alex Wolfgram, a guide with W.E.T. River Trips, is part of a story that underlines the risks of inexperienced rafting. When Alex Wolfgram lifted the child out of the water, he couldn't tell if the small boy in his hands was alive. "We thought he was dead," Wolfgram said. But in what seemed a miracle, Wolfgram and two other guides, Nathan Fried and Jason Wasserman, saved the life of this 9-year-old after a river accident in June.

On Sept. 22, theAmerican Red Cross honored them as "Hometown Heroes." This story captures a life-and-death drama in the outdoors and also shows that not only are there plenty of heroes out there, but lessons to be learned as well. It was a summer day on the South American River, located in the Sierra foothills near Coloma (El Dorado County ). A professionally guided rafting trip with W.E.T. River Trips had stopped below a rapid called First Thread for a shore lunch. Wolfgram, a guide, was making chicken salad when several guests sounded an alert.

"I looked up from my cutting board, took a few steps toward the river and I saw a little red helmet floating down the far side of the river," Wolfgram said. "The fact I couldn't see a body told me this was a small person." Wolfgram, Fried and Wasserman sprinted to a 14-foot self-bailing raft and dug into the water with their paddles with "all our strength," Wolfgram recounted. But the river, running fast at 6,000 cubic feet per second, carried the boy downstream through the next series of rapids, Third Thread. "We saw him roll over a submerged rock pile," Wolfgram said. "That was pretty dramatic. We thought for sure he was dead, that we were just chasing a body."

They didn't catch up to him until the start of yet another rapid. "I pulled him out of the river and saw it was a child," Wolfgram said. "His skin was totally pale white and had no texture, no goose bumps even. I'd never seen anything like it. We were all really scared." In one motion, from his position in the back of the raft, Wolfgram pulled the child out of the water and onto his lap. "I leaned over and put my ear next this mouth, to see if he was breathing. Right then, he started convulsing. I rolled him over, held him upside down and tried to clear his airways, to get the water out of his lungs and stomach."

The child was alive but unconscious. The rescue occurred as the raft plundered down a rapid, Fried and Wasserman working the raft, fighting to make it into the calm water of an eddy and to shore, more than a half mile from where the boy was first spotted floating down the river. From the raft, Wolfgram handed the boy to Fried on shore. With Wasserman's help, they laid the boy on a rock. They removed the boy's life jacket, shirt and helmet. Fried, trained as a nurse, checked for a pulse. " 'It's really weak,' " Wolfgram remembered Fried saying. "We knew he wasn't safe yet." Three kayakers suddenly appeared, coursing down the river. The rafting guides waved them over and asked for help. One of the kayakers charged downstream, covering 2 miles in less than 10 minutes, to private property. He ran to a house and the residents called 911. Wolfgram and the group then transported the boy by raft to a spot downriver where a rescue helicopter could land.

"The boy was going in and out," Wolfgram said. "He would whimper, then go out again. Can't really say he was conscious." In 15 minutes, the helicopter arrived. The child was flown to UC Davis Medical Center. Wolfgram hiked upstream, bushwhacking with no trail, heading back to his group at shore lunch. In the process, he ran into a woman who appeared in shock, heading downstream in another raft. It was the boy's mom. "Your little boy is alive," Wolfgram said he told her. She remained in complete shock. The boy's name, he learned, was Joseph.

After Wolfgram completed the epic South Fork run with his group, he said he felt overwhelmed by what had happened, the classic delayed reaction to crisis. "I was really shook up, and I needed to do something with all the feelings I had," Wolfgram said. "So I took my kayak to Chili Bar to surf the river waves." Fate and irony: At the Chili Bar rapid, known as a surf hole, three others in a raft, two co-workers and a man, arrived. To Wolfgram's surprise, the man was the person who led the ill-destined trip with Joseph. He told Wolfgram the rest of the story: Three adult males, an adult female and 9-year-old Joseph, none professionally trained to raft whitewater, had rented a raft and tried a do-it-yourself trip. They flipped at a rapid called Maya. All feared for their lives. One of the adults had hold of Joseph, but the strength of the current pulled the boy out of the grasp - and Joseph slipped away. He was carried downstream into a 2 1/2 -mile series of rapids, and at some point was rendered unconscious. There's a lesson here. Rafting trips run by professionals have excellent safety records. But the same trips attempted by those without training can risk lives. With the combination of high water and inexperienced rafters,

Wolfram said that he had to help people in trouble - attempting trips on their own - almost every week, sometimes more, "especially on weekends." But there is a bigger message. "One thing people should learn from this is, 'Never give up,' " Wolfgram said. "Joseph didn't give up. He floated down rapids for 2 1/2 miles in extremely cold water. He refused to succumb to hypothermia. He's an inspiration to us as rescuers, knowing what can be survived. Nobody should ever forget this." After being airlifted out by helicopter, Joseph was stabilized and treated. He was later released and has made a full recovery and is now back at school. "I feel lucky to have been there," Wolfgram said.

E-mail Tom Stienstra at