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Accident Description

Lee/Charlie, a friend passes away.


David C. Fallside 916.457.2830


John Lester on 06/21/99 03:23:21 AM>

Subject:GCP: More on John Stofle's>

I can't sleep tonight, so rather than just replay the day and the accident over and over in my mind, I thought maybe writing down what happened and some of my feelings will help. Maybe knowing more of the facts will help some of you who knew John as well.>

The day started like any other. Bruce and I arrived in Downieville first. I explored the town a bit, and found a bakery to get a little breakfast. Upon returning to the car park, I met up with John. We spent a few minutes catching up and talking about the run. Gradually, the rest of the group showed up, and we all hung out, chatted, and told river lies. After arranging boats, we headed up to the take out at Union Flat, left a car, and met up with Gunnar and Jenny at Wild Plum. We had a very strong group of 8 competent paddlers. Several of us were boating near our limits, but we were all comfortable with the difficulty of the river. None of us had run Wild Plum before, but we were all confident in our abilities to explore the river, and none of us expressed any major reservations. It was a really nice day that promised to be fairly hot, and putting into the surprisingly cold water was refreshing.>

The first few miles flew past and were very continuous and fairly difficult class IV. There were eddies where they were needed, though, so the run felt very manageable. John missed a few lines, flipped a few times, and missed a few rolls, but he seemed to be doing OK overall. We all noticed small things, but nothing really stuck out. Others in the group, myself included, were also having minor difficulties and errors in the beginning.>

The river starts out with stomping class IV and no warmup. At our first break, I remember him saying something about being a bit tired and wishing he'd brought more food. I gave him some of my sandwich and something to drink. At (I think) this point, one of our group (Marty?) thinks he remembers a crack on John's helmet that was not there at put-in. I also have a vague recollection of John making a comment about his helmet. I didn't see it, though, and there was no indication whatsoever that he may have been hurt. At this point I should stress that the existence of an injury at that point in the trip is mere speculation which may be fueled by our need to make some sense out of>

The next 2 or so miles was much like the first, continuous class IV/IV+ with occasional breaks of fast moving class II/III. There were a fair number of eddies, and the whole group while sometimes spreading out more than optimal at times, did very well at sticking together, scouting when neccessary, and generally paddling safely. Gunnar, a very talented and experienced paddler from Germany, usually led, and was usually followed by Jenny, Marty, and Donnie. Bruce and I buddied up and usually stayed near the rear, along with Ken and John who were keeping an eye out for each other. In this section, Gunnar, who often got out to set safety or eddied out directly below the biggest rapids, noticed that John was missing many of his rolls. He always made his second or third roll though. Since he did not know John, and since John was still doing fairly well, it didn't seem out of the ordinary at the time, but in retrospect it was not normal for>

At the second break John was still OK. He was laughing and joking around - having a good time and enjoying the beautiful country we were in. He did say one thing to me that (again in hindsight) should maybe have rang some alarm bells. I haven't done the upper section of Kyburz. We were talking about a comparison to that run, and when I asked him to compare the runs he said "well, I'm having a bad day today, ask me on a good day." We continued on, and the river eased somewhat, but there were still some tough rapids. John elected to portage two rapids in this section that most of us ran. One of those he was the only one to portage. At the time it didn't seem noteworthy - rather to me it seemed he was boating safely and choosing wisely and for himself when to portage and when to run the rapids. Again - in retrospect, perhaps something was wrong? Eventually we came to a section of river that eased considerably to fast II/III. As the group quit catching so many eddies, we ended up spreading out a little more as we made good time. There were a few strainers, though, which we all negotiated together, and that kept everyone reasonably close.>

The last time I saw John upright, I had just passed a strainer that extended half the river and was drifting backwards through a class IIish rapid, watching to see that Bruce, John and Ken passed the strainer OK. John was, at that point, in sweep position. In the time I was drifting backwards, rather than paddling forwards, the first four (Marty, Donnie, Gunnar and Jenny) gained distance between us and ran the next class III-ish rapid below the next the bend. After seeing the three behind me pass the strainer, I too turned, rounded the corner and eddied out just above the III- to wait until I saw>

It was then that I heard the whistle. The problem was that in the deep canyon I thought the whistle was coming from downstream. I was looking downstream for the source and even moved down one eddy to try and see if I could see the problem. Then I heard Bruce shouting from upstream "HE'S OUT OF HIS BOAT!!!!" At first I was confused as to why Bruce was yelling, because of course he couldn't see any more than I could what was happening downstream. Then I heard him more clearly - "JOHN'S STILL IN HIS BOAT!!!!, HE'S IN HIS BOAT" It was then that I saw his boat coming toward me upside down. Bruce and Ken were trying to bulldoze it to shore before it went down the next III- rapid. I quickly ferried across, exited my boat, jumped in the river and grabbed his boat, pulling it into>

John was unresponsive, was not breathing, had no pulse, and showed evidence of severe head trauma. I screamed for help to those downstream but they couldn't hear us. We started CPR with difficulty as soon as we had his boat stable, but soon moved him ashore. After about 5 or so minutes, Bruce and Ken continued CPR while I climbed the steep cliff to the road and stopped 3-4 cars for help. Luckily a motorcyclist had a cell phone and drove up the hill to call 911. A woman from one of the cars scrambled down the hill and assisted with CPR. This good Samaritan left before I had a chance to thank her. She literally gave the shirt off her back to try and save John.>

Remarkably fast, about 20 minutes after we pulled John from the river, the rescue squad arrived. Unfortunately by that point, John had passed away. Bruce was the first to notice John upside down in the river. At first Bruce says his hands were out of the water, and he thought John was trying to roll. Then he stopped struggling. Nobody knows what happened exactly. Nobody ever saw his paddle, nobody saw him hit a rock, and nobody saw him flip over. It was an easy section of river - perhaps the easiest of the day so far. Perhaps that is part of the reason it is so hard to make sense of>

I can't make sense of what happened, though, no matter how hard and how much I think about it. The images of what happened are burned into my mind. I still see John on that beach as we struggled desperately to save him. The sense of mounting despair and hopelessness that overtook me as things progressed are still tangible and every time my mind turns to what happened those emotions return in full force. I can't express in words how I feel. We may never know what happened to John. Maybe he had a heart attack, maybe he broke his neck earlier that day, maybe he bashed his head and sustained a fatal head injury, maybe he drowned. Maybe maybe>

Part of what makes this so difficult for me is that we did everything right! We were a strong group, we were boating together and safely, we did not take any unnecessary or foolish risks. John wore a good PFD, a Grateful Heads (I think) Kevlar helmet with ear coverage, and his boat (a Hammer) was reasonable for the run. The only two things that did come out in our discussions that night were: 1) Helmet: his helmet had only a thin (1/4 inch??) layer of minicell foam inside it. Perhaps that was insufficient to spread out the force of a head blow? 2) Attentiveness to members of our group: We were not boating as tightly as a group at that point as we might have. Further, many of us recognized him as the weakest (though not by much) boater that day. At very least we should not have allowed him to slip into the sweep position, and maybe we should have been more attentive to some of the possible warning signs we recognized in hindsight. So I don't know what the take home messages are here. I can't offer any real explanation, and I'm kind of tired and am probably not making too much sense.>

What I can do is tell you how much I don't ever want this to happen again to me or any of you, my friends. It was a horrible and traumatic event that I will never be able to forget. When I close my eyes I see John laughing and talking at our last rest stop, I see him in SOC Tuesday talking about helmets with me, and I see myself holding his head in my hands on the beach - trying to establish an airway.... The desperation of the resucitation and the despair and anguish you feel when the realization hits you that a friend and fellow boater is dead is something I hope you never, ever have to go through.>

Remember that an accident can happen ANY TIME, ANYWHERE! Are you current with your River rescue, First Aid, and CPR? You really never know when you'll need it. Your day can go from blissful float to a life threatening accident in a second. Are you ready to use what you know? PLEASE be prepared. W atch out for your friends on the river. Know where they are, and know how they are feeling. WATCH OUT FOR YOURSELF on the river. Know how YOU are feeling, and don't be afraid to get off the river if you feel ANYTHING is wrong. And PLEASE, PLEASE boat safely - the tears running down my face are real. I don't want to cry them for>