Accident Database

Report ID# 494

  • Swim into Strainer
  • Does not Apply
  • Other

Accident Description

As an AWA member I have the unhappy occasion to send you a brief report if an accident at Chili Bar on the South Fork Amreican River, California. I am the Safety Officer for the all volunteer group to whom this happened while I was away in Alaska. I am submitting this information anonymously at the request of all the attorneys involved. I request that the group not be identified in any republication of this item. I have written it below as I'd like it to appear. The attorneys would have a fit if we were identified before they've finished their investigation.

"The participant group consisted of 2 group leaders and 18 participants, for a total of 20. We had 5 guides plus the Trip Leader, for a total staff of 6. The group had run the Gorge cleanly on Saturday, 6/20, with no swimmers or any other mishaps. Everyone was wearing wet suits despite the 90 degree temperature. The participants were given complete safety talks at the pre-trip meeting as well as before each day's rafting. The group shuttled to Chili Bar around 10:30AM and prepared to run the Chili Bar section of the river.

The river was running at between 6000 and 7000 CFS, and the guides decided to take only 5 boats down the river, 4 paddle boat and 1 oar boat, 1 less than the day before. After the safety talk and tie down, the paddle boats started the paddle talks then started the paddling practice. Just before noon, 1 of the paddle boats crossed the main current and caught the big eddy at river left just across from put-in. As the trip departed down stream, that boat exited at the top of the eddy and was flipped by the eddy fence, dumping all the paddlers. One of the group leaders was one of the swimmers. The group leader got swept into the big tree strainer on river left and was pinned against a log underwater.

The entrapment happened at 12:00PM. Another ICO paddle boat eddied out just down stream of the victim, and the guides ran upstream to help after securing their own boat. With the assistance of a kayaker, the rescuers pulled the victim out of the water and the ICO guides started CPR. When the EMT's and the Sheriff's arrived on the scene, they took over the CPR and evacuated the victim across the river into an ambulance. The victim was transported to the neartby hospital and placed on life support. Life support was terminated the following Friday.

Subsequently, the river dropped 2,000 CFS and a submerged obsticle, an oak tree stump, was found immediately upstream of the log. It is probable that the victim was actually entrapped by the stump's roots. Jeff Novack, river ranger, reported that the entrapment was immediate and inevitable. The stump and log were sawed out." Bill Weinberg 


Lee, Charlie, and Jeanette, Here is my report on the near-drowning at Chili Bar:

Accident Report South Fork of the American River Sunday, June 21, 1998

Under the direction of training coordinator Lamar Peckham, Friends of the River was holding the fourth day of an 11-day whitewater guide training on the South Fork of the American River. The plan for the day was a run from Chili Bar to Camp Lotus, at flows of about 6,500 cfs. I was planning to paddle as a safety kayaker. As we were unloading boats at Chili Bar, I happened to look downstream about 100 yards from my vantage point on top of a van, and saw a two boat trip from Sierra Club Inner City Outings (ICO) enter the short wave train opposite the put-in (the location at lower flows of the famous Chili Bar hole). The trip consisted of one paddle raft and one oar rig. The paddle-raft attempted to enter the large, turbulent eddy on river-left and flipped on the eddy line, dumping the guide and passengers.

At lower flows, commercial rafting trips usually collect in this eddy before proceeding downstream from the put-in. However, the eddy presents certain problems at high flows. A progressive landslide on river-left above the eddy has fed trees and other strainers into the river at this point, and the eddy is very turbulent, with a strong eddy current and a very nasty eddy-fence that generates large whirlpools.

After seeing the guide right the paddle raft, and seeing what seemed to be most of the passengers getting to shore, I frankly didn't give the event much more thought, and returned to working with the other guides to get our trip ready. It is very common to see rafts flip in this area at low flows, when Chili Bar hole is present, and these things generally sort themselves out. However, downstream on the beach opposite the rapid and eddy, bystanders saw one of the swimmers become entrapped in some of the few remaining branches attached to a large downed tree that lay in the water along the river-left bank, extending from the bottom of the eddy where the flip occurred.

They attracted the attention of Friends of the River guide Chris Fischer, who saw the entrapment point, and who then recruited three nearby kayakers to respond from the beach. Mark Buckley was one of those kayakers. He reported that he also had been aware that the raft flipped and hadn't really been very concerned. However, alerted by Chris and other bystanders, he saw the flash of yellow PFD in the water beneath the tree.

It took a good bit of time for Mark and the other kayakers to ferry to river-left, find safe landing spots, then make their way along the steep slope and across boulders and debris to the log. The first two kayakers were not clear about the location of the victim, and were searching in the vicinity of the tree's root ball. Mark took direction from Chris on the opposite side of the river and then began to crawl the length of the log to the victim. The victim's PFD washed free about this time, causing a bit of delay and confusion. Eventually, with the assistance of the bystanders across the river, Mark glimpsed the victim's wetsuit in the current and was able to reach the right spot.

Mark struggled for several minutes trying to free the victim. He eventually determined that one of the victim's lower legs was stuck between two large branches. The leg was bent at the knee, and the body bent back into the current. Another kayaker passed a rope from shore, and Mark was able to float it around the victim's body and tie a loop. Initial efforts to pull the victim free by rope failed. Eventually, Mark was able to lower himself partly into the water and use his foot and leg to push her foot and leg free of the branches. Rescuers were then able to pull the victim to shore with a rope where they initiated CPR.

Mark reported that the victim was immersed about 10 minutes before she was extracted. She was in her mid-20's and was wearing both a wetsuit and a PFD. Soon afterward, I heard about the accident and paddled to river-left and climbed down to the accident scene. As the only EMT on the scene at that point, I took over direction of the CPR efforts (which were proceeding very ably for about 5 minutes at the time I arrived).

About 5-10 minutes later, a deputy sheriff-EMT arrived and took over the scene. We continued CPR until the raft, rowed by a guide from OARS, was able to reach right-left immediately below the log. We then carried the victim along the shore and over boulders and debris until we could place her in the raft. We made no attempt to continue CPR during the several minutes required for that effort. CPR was resumed in the raft as it ferried to river-left where she was transferred to the care of a waiting paramedic and ambulance.

Afterwards, I went back upstream and consoled two remaining passengers from the ICO trip and assisted them with getting in a private raft to ferry them back to the launch area on river-right. Out of respect for the victim, Friends of the River cancelled its training trip for the South Fork that day. Under Lamar's direction, we held a debrief for guides and trainers before leaving, and a brief ceremony after returning to Camp Lotus. All present were chapter guides, trainers, and trainees; we had no guests scheduled.

News media report today that the victim regained pulse and respirations and is now in the hospital in critical condition. Regards, Richard

On Mon, 22 Jun 1998 15:36:57 +0000, in "Duaine Pryor, Ph.D." wrote: I heard from a boater who saw it, that there was a drowning on Sunday 6/22 around 1pm in the two fallen trees just below the Chili Bar put in. If both this and the Satans story are true, this makes three drownings on the SFA in one week! In the last 10 years, I have heard of only two fatalities on that section! I saw the Helicopter on Saturday, but I thought that I saw TV station markings on it. Is there a channel 3 in Sacramento? Duaine Pryor>

Roger Lynn Safety Chair Colorado White Water Association roger.lynn@wang.comCalifornia, which has experienced both a heavy snowpack and a cool spring, is in for a prolonged period of extremely high water. Already eleven rafting fatalities have been reported; two involved a mother and child on an air mattress, but the rest are for real! Three occurred within a few days of each other on the South Fork of the American near Lotus, California. A popular Class III+ summer run at 1200-1600 cfs, at 6,000-8,000 cfs the river becomes very continuous and turbulent. At this point it should be considered heavy class IV-IV+. Most of this information was reported by AW Director and Friends of the River conservationist Richard>


On June 21 Brenda Cercone, 27 drowned after the Chili Bar put-in of the South Fork of the American after a raft she was in flipped on the eddyline. This was a trip designed to offer outdoor opportunities to inner city youth. She was washed downstream into a strainer. She was recovered quickly (10 minutes) and was found to have a pulse. She was taken to Marshall Hospital in nearby Placerville. She died several days later without regaining consciousness.


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