Accident Database

Report ID# 61

  • Flush Drowning
  • Hypothermia
  • Cold Water
  • Poor Group / Scene Management

Accident Description

Crystal Rapid: June 14,1989
Volume 12,00 cfs (est); Classification: V

DESCRIPTION: Martin Hunsucker, 54, a guide with Georgie's Royal River Rats, drowned following a capsizing in Crystal Rapid, one of the biggest L drops in Arizona's Grand Canyon. The victim was running a 33'S-Rig with a commercial party. The group scouted the drop, and entered the rapid river left. Here the engine died; the craft was forced up against a rock wall on river left where it capsized. All crew members with the exception of Hunsucker climbed back into the boat and began pulling passengers aboard. Hunsucker gave his fellow guides a "thumbs-up" sign indicating that he was O.K., then apparently swam downstream in pursuit of a passenger. The guides assumed Hunsucker would be all right, and even when a head count showed he was missing they guessed that he had been picked up by another boat cruising in the area. The remaining guides repaired the boat and proceeded downstream. His body was spotted by another outfitter shortly thereafter; a doctor on the trip pronounced him dead. His party, which was camped downstream, was informed of the fatality that evening.

SOURCE: Ken Phillips, Ranger, Grand Canyon National Park

ANALYSIS: The area below Crystal Rapid is fast and turbulent for miles below the drop. The water was 54 degrees, quite a shock to a person who minutes earlier was sitting in the 110 degree desert air. Grand Canyon guides wear no wetsuits, and this leaves them vulnerable to hypothermia following a capsizing. The heat, combined with the fact that these rigs seldom flip, makes wearing protective clothing impractical, so efforts must focus on getting out of the water promptly. I suspect that the cold, turbulent water proved to be too much for the victim, and that it was a poor idea on his part to swim after a passenger under these conditions. As it turned out, his efforts were unnecessary; all clients were picked up downstream.

The fact that the victim's disappearance was not noted by his party until evening raises disturbing questions as to the mechanisms used by his group to keep track of people after capsizing. I cannot imagine a professional guide leaving his trip on a boat from another group without first informing his party. A more likely scenario is that the victim could have been marooned against a cliff somewhere downstream, in need of help. I would have felt better had his group initiated a thorough search of the area when Hunsucker turned up missing. (CW)

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