Trip RAccident report - From the Facebook Page of the Grand Canyon Private Boaters Assn.
On August 9, 2018 at approximately 5:00pm while camped at Fern Glen Camp (mile 168.8) on the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon a severe weather event occurred that radically changed the course of our river trip. We were enjoying a layover day at the camp on our 11th day on the river. Around 2:30 - 3:00 pm, the typical afternoon clouds began to form above the canyon.There was some light rain during dinner, then shortly after dinner the winds picked up with sustained gusts over 30 mph requiring us to take down our tarps & sunshades. The winds were followed by heavy rain & hail. The hail stones quickly grew in size & frequency from pea sized to marble sized and finally to golf ball size with significant accumulation of hail occurring.
As a result of the intensity of the hail storm & rain, several people sought refugee under aluminum kitchen tables & the cliff overhang alone the back of the camp. Under the deluge of heavy rain (approximately 5” in about 20 minutes per accompanying weather radar images), the 1500’ cliff face effectively became a functional drainage system funneling water and debris down its face & into our camp. There were two primary areas into which the debris was focused. At the west end of the beach, a small waterfall of rock & other debris fell forming a dump truck sized pile of rubble that narrowly missed three members of our party who sought protection under the overhanging face of a large boulder while severely injuring another member resulting in a complex fracture of the right upper arm. Meanwhile, those seeking shelter under the cliff at the rear of the camp, were hit by a number of small rocks & decided to abandon their position and run out onto the beach area & into the river. Immediately after doing so, a 30’ section of the overhanging cliff ledge collapsed burying the area along the cliff where they had been sheltering. The high volume of water coming off of the cliff also created several large drainage ravines that ran from the cliff on the north side of the beach to the western end of the beach & then into the river.
Four members of our trip were injured as a result, 1 complex fracture of the right upper arm, 1 major laceration of the left forearm, 1 significant laceration of the head with no loss of consciousness, and 1 soft tissue injury to the elbow. The satellite phone was activated and the National Park Service as well as the Department of Public safety were made aware of our position, situation & request for medical evacuation of the wounded. We were advised that related to timing of our incident and impending fall of darkness, extraction of the wounded would not occur until the next morning.
Immediately, an area for triage was designated where tents & sleeping bags were set up to administer aid to victims at the highest area in the center of the camp away from the cliff, river & historical flash drainages from Fern Glen canyon. A lookout was posted within view of the historical drainage to monitor conditions along that drainage & provide warnings should conditions merit. Concurrently, all the rafts ( 5 - 18’ NRS self-bailers ) were moved from the destabilized anchorage at the western end of the beach to a stable central location along the shore. Immediately after securing the rafts, a camp wide retrieval of all gear was initiated & the effected gear piled in an area adjacent to the triage area.
As the water in the small cove began to rise, it brought with it two commercial “J” boats, 1 boat towing the other disabled boat, carrying 15 people total. The water level in the cove & river would rise a total of 4-5 feet and remain high for several hours thereafter. The commercial group had fled their camp at Lower National with only their PFD’s & the clothes on their backs. We offered & they accepted our aid immediately increasing the number of souls involved in the disaster from 15 to 30 individuals.
In the commercial group there was a trauma surgeon, who volunteered to render aid & treatment to our wounded. As such, he managed the triage & medical response. All patients were treated & stabilized as best as possible given our situation. While our people had already eaten dinner, the people in the commercial group had not. Our kitchen was impacted during the collapse of the cliff face requiring us to retrieve the parts & re-establish a functional kitchen. The commercial group was fed & sleeping accommodations provided in a safe area adjacent to the kitchen. They were also given use of our groover & shown where it was as well as the protocol regarding its use. At this point in the disaster, we had established & set-up an area for medical triage and treatment, a functioning kitchen, sleeping areas for our private party as well as the commercial group, provided groover facilities, collected all gear effected by the storm in an area next to the kitchen and finally set-up & cleared a landing zone away from our people on the western end of our camp.
At dawn, the commercial group left our camp on two functioning ‘J’ BOATS. it was our understanding that their intent was to travel to Whitmore Helipad to evacuate their people by helicopter. Shortly after dawn, the NPS helicopter arrived on scene, the oranges panels forming an “X” on the LZ were removed prior to landing the aircraft. The NPS personal accessed the scene, provided aid & evacuated the fracture, major laceration & two children to neighboring medical transport & the South Rim Clinic.
The eleven remaining members of the trip policed up all manmade items from the camp. The majority of the remaining day was spent cleaning and packing gear for transport out of the canyon. Plans were made for takeout at Pearce Ferry on our scheduled takeout day. To reach our planned rendezvous with our outfitter Ceiba Adventures would require us to row 120 miles over three days which we were able to do.
While what happened to us was an act of God disaster, we were able to mitigate the severity of the event with a quick, decisive and focused response to the adverse event. Our group was assembled with a mix of seasoned members with extensive Grand Canyon river experience, 30-40 year old males with substantial outdoor experience, a surgical nurse with level 1 trauma experience, a dentist, two young adult males & two 70 year old individuals with river experience. Prior to meeting on the river, group skills were accessed and noted. Immediately upon launch of our trip, river skill assessment continued and training initiated to bring all members up to speed. We had two raft flips before reaching Fern Glen Camp. Those flips provided “Z” drag training & implementation as well as further team building exercises. Our team came together early in the trip giving us the ability to easily make our miles, provide safety & perform as a unified team during our trip. The emphasis on training & team building coupled with extensive Grand Canyon river experience were major contributing factors to the successful deployment of our disaster response during this event.
YouTube Video of the Incident: