Report of the Death of Mary Grace Butscher McCoy
I am extremely sad to report the drowning death of Mary Grace Butscher McCoy “MG", 50 years old and from North Carolina, on June 10 after a raft she was on flipped in the Jinsha Jiang river by Batang, Sichuan (China). She was with her spouse, Christine Veronica Nesbitt (“Chrissy”), at the time. I express my deepest condolences to Chrissy, MG’s son Shelby, MG’s father and all of her surviving family and friends.
Although we are all in shock and heartbroken over this tragedy, I think it is important to share with people what happened. MG and Chrissy were traveling in China for several weeks and had contacted me about joining our expedition, which they had read about on line. Both Chrissy and MG had whitewater rafting experience including on some class V rivers and had paddled their own canoes/kayaks on many multiday trips in the Southeast in up to class III rapids. Our group met MG and Chrissy in Batang on June 9 and got to know each other a bit more over dinner before they were to start with our group descending ~150 km of the river over 5 days. Chrissy spoke Cantonese and some Mandarin, and MG had planned many of the things they were to do during their stay in China. They had attended a wedding in Chengdu, had just spent several days living with Tibetan nomads in northern Sichuan (including helping out with an unusual conjoined twin yak birth). Both MG and Chrissy were excited to get on the river, and had brought a number of special items for the trip.
Our group returned to the river on June 10 to raft 16 km, which was mostly flat or class II but included one class IV rapid (“Temi”) a few km above the Batang river confluence. When we arrived at the big rapid around 4 pm, there was a brisk upstream wind, it was very warm (about 30°C/86°F), the river water was cold (roughly 15°C/60°F) and the river was flowing a bit above normal for this time year (mid-June: ~1000 cms/35000 cfs). All three rafts stopped to scout the rapid. The rapid was ~200 m long and class IV difficulty, primarily consisting of a wave train in the center of the river and a big hole on the right that needed to be avoided. We noted three very large waves that were crashing and could flip the rafts - one at the start of the wave train, another about a third of the way down (the “5th wave”), and a third wave closer to the end on the right side (the “13th wave”). We discussed the rapid and the lines that we would take with the rafts, and all captains agreed that the left line was safest and that was what we would aim for. We all felt very confident in running the correct line. Although the rapid appeared to be a class IV due to the large waves, we assessed that by staying on the correct line on the left, we could avoid most waves and features and it would be a relatively smooth ride (class III). The waves got quite small toward the end of the wave train and then the water mellowed out for a long way. We returned to the rafts, and I debriefed Chrissy and MG on this rapid and safety issues, which we had already gone over earlier. They were sitting in the front of the raft captained by Joe Anderson, an MD and very experienced oarsman who had been rowing the raft on the previous ~40 days of the expedition (and has rowed numerous other class IV-V international river trips, as well as most of the standard class III and IV multi-day trips in the Western USA). Marty was on Tony’s raft. Leo was on my cataraft. This was an arrangement all were comfortable with. We agreed that the order of boats would be Tony, Joe and then me, and that Tony and Joe would try to go close together so they could help the other out in the event of a flip and/or swimmer.
The strong upstream wind may have affected our lines into the rapid. Tony started out ahead of Joe but ended up stalled in an eddy just before the rapid started. Joe went down next, hitting the first wave sideways and surfing toward the center, and ended up tipping on his side (~90°) in the 5th wave and subsequently slowly flipping over. MG fell off the raft sometime after they hit the 5th wave, probably in the middle to lower part of the rapid, and then drifted further and further away from the raft as she went through the final series of waves. She moved more quickly downstream than the raft because of upstream winds that slowed the raft down. Joe and Chrissy remained with the raft and, in the calmer section past the final waves, pulled it back upright and rowed toward MG, who, by this time, was much farther away from the raft. Joe noticed that MG was not swimming toward the raft nor toward the side of the river. Although the river was fairly calm after the main rapid, about ~1 km downstream it picked up to class II water that went on for nearly a kilometer.
Tony entered the rapid far left and the 5th wave ended up spinning him 180 degrees, and then later he nearly tipped over in the lower 13th big crashing wave. This threw Marty out of the raft, who, like MG, also drifted more swiftly downstream away from the raft (due to the upstream wind). However, Marty was able to swim to the side and Tony subsequently rowed there to pick him up. On my run in the cataraft, I entered left and remained left of all the big waves, passing through smoothly. As I approached Tony, we continued downstream looking for Joe and the others.
By the time Joe and Chrissy caught up to MG, she had been swimming in the river approximately 10-15 minutes and was in an eddy. Joe rowed into the eddy and noticed that MG’s PFD was halfway up her torso, so it was not functioning properly. Joe said that MG was still apparently trying to breathe at that point. He and Chrissy pulled MG into the raft’s bow compartment, and, shortly after that, Joe noticed that MG had stopped breathing. They pulled off MG's helmet and PFD and Joe conducted CPR for an estimated 10-15 min as they drifted out of the eddy and downstream. Sadly, MG did not resuscitate. Joe then rowed the raft to the left side of the river and waited for me and Tony to arrive.
It is unclear why MG did not swim back to the raft or to the side of the river. There were no signs of trauma to her body. It is possible panic or some other medical event compromised her ability to swim. In my safety debriefing with Chrissy and MG, I had reiterated various aspects that I had already gone over with them previously, and emphasized some of the more unique aspects of a large volume river, as well as this particular rapid. I had discussed that it was very important to hold yourself in the raft as it was going over large waves and features - that the safest place was to stay with the raft. I had emphasized that anyone still on the raft should help a person get back in, and instructed them on how to thrown and catch a throw rope. I had stated that it was very important to be proactive to swim vigorously to get to whichever raft is closest, or to the side of the river if that is closest. Both Chrissy and MG had brought PFDs appropriate for whitewater - MGs was a new NRS type III, and Chrissy’s was a Stohlquist Cruiser type III, and had worn WRSI helmets on that I provided. I had checked to make sure they tightened their PFDs to their bodies. However, the fact that MG’s PFD was not tight on her torso in the correct location when she was recovered suggests this may have been an important factor leading to her drowning.
Once we had all regrouped, we discussed things, made some calls, and consoled Chrissy. We then rowed about 1 km downstream to a point more accessible by road and met the police and eventually an ambulance, and all of us (except Tony) returned to Batang to the hospital. The following day Chrissy and Joe departed to Kangding with MG’s body, while Leo and I had several meetings with police and other government officials. MG was cremated in Kangding. Chrissy has now made it to Chengdu where there is a US Consulate and she has a network of friends, and is to return to the US soon.
We were all shaken by the tragedy and considering ending the expedition, so I inquired of each participant how he/she felt. Chrissy wrote to me, “Please do continue with the trip. It's absolutely the best way to honor her (Mary Grace’s) memory! I so wish there was some way to send some of her ashes to you...” The remaining team members felt they could go either way, but with Chrissy’s encouragement, they agreed to continue. Local government officials would not allow us to continue on the river in Sichuan, so today we plan to start on the river at Benzilan (Yunnan) and continue 3-4 more days to Tiger Leaping Gorge (by Lijiang). Chrissy will send to us part of Mary Grace’s remains (her broken ankle hardware) and we will offer it into the river at Tiger Leaping Gorge in memory and honor of her.
We all remain extremely saddened by the death of Mary Grace and continue to express sympathy to her family and friends. For information about the memorial and to send condolences, please contact Chrissy Nesbitt (either at firstname.lastname@example.org
or at email@example.com
, but realize that it is difficult to access gmail while in China).
Chrissy and Joe both read and confirmed information in this summary.