Accident Database

Report ID# 620

  • Equipment Trap
  • Does not Apply
  • Other

Accident Description

Utah ’s Westwater Canyon is a straightforward Class IV whitewater run in a beautiful desert canyon. On October 4, 1999 it was flowing at approximately 6,800 cfs with a water temperature of 58 degrees. A group of two rafts including Max Turner, 29, attempted the run. The paddlers were fit, but had limited experience.

Turner was in the first boat of a two-boat party. His paddle raft flipped in Skull Hole, then he and three other members of his party washed into the Room of Doom, a nasty eddy.  His leg got caught by a loose bow line, and he was pushed against the rock wall, and trapped against a pillow on the left side. The raft was stuck, too, apparently snagged by the same bow line that trapped Turner. The second raft also flipped in the hole. All hands washed down through the next three rapids into a flat pool before they were able to get to shore and right the raft. Since they were behind the paddle boat they knew there had been a flip, but could do nothing to help.

Three kayakers showed up 10-15 minutes after this happened. They were able to enter the room, climb up the wall, and throw a line to Max, but he could not grab hold. No one could get to him at river level. He had been holding on for at least 15 more minutes when our group showed up. Our two strongest boaters paddled into the room, but could not help him. Later, more paddlers arrived. Max survived for about 45 minutes longer before he finally went under for the last time. All of this happened in full view of his mother and brother, who were also on the trip.

After Turner died, a very strong kayaker from Salt Lake City climbed, hand over hand, down the cliff to the overturned raft and was able to cut it free. Turner’s body stayed in the same place, presumably held by the line. Eventually his life vest was pulled off, and he disappeared from view. Several days later they were still searching for the body.

At about



6:00 p.m.

a group paddled down stream to call for help. Four other kayakers stayed with the rafters over night, donating their extra layers of clothing, food, and water. All that was in the paddle raft was two waterlogged dry bags containing a bunch of wet cotton clothing and empty beer cans. BLM rangers left from the put-in at


3:55 a.m., as soon as the moon was up.  At

6:00 a.m.

National Park Service rangers drove a jet boat upstream and returned at

9:30 a.m.

with the paddlers. They then went back up to bring back rescuers and gear.

SOURCE: Lisa Wilk, Aida Parkinson, NPS Morning Report

ANALYSIS:  (Walbridge)

1. The danger of loose lines in whitewater is well documented. Incidents like this will help motivate us to stow all rope on river boats with great care.

2. A Westwater Canyon ranger observed that until this year there had been no deaths on the river for 15 years. Another accident, occurring in May, involved this same rapid. The victim was older, and shock of cold water may have caused a heart attack. He died while climbing out of the Room of Doom.


Subject: Fatality on Westwater From: “Paul Heller” m

Date: Sun, 03 October 1999 11:25 PM EDT

Message-id: <>

About 4 pm Sat. 10/02 I paddled with four friends through Skull rapid to find a few rafters stranded on rocks in the Room of Doom and one on river left. About a dozen kayakers already there had worked unsuccessfully to free a young rafter from the Rock of Shock. Evidentially the boy became tangled in a bow line or other rope after the paddle raft flipped in Skull hole. The boy was slightly on the Room of Doom side of the Rock while the rope was held tight across the Rock by the partially deflated paddle raft pulled by the force of the main current of the Colorado outside the Room. A few kayakers tried swimming up to the Rock w/ knives to cut the rope. But at 6,800 the pillow against the Rock is large and violent. It is difficult enough to avoid the Rock when ferrying into the Room. After about 30 minutes the boy drowned and unfortunately part of the body was still visible to the mother on the bank in the Room. Thus we focused on getting her and two others up and over the cliff area and back to river level a few hundred yards down stream. The rafter on river left was put in a kayak with two kayakers on either side. Another boat then towed the stable, three boat flotilla to river right to join the rest of the group. The kayaker who donated the boat had to swim/be towed across river. Eventually the raft was freed and I’m not sure what happened to the body. We rounded up food, water, clothes from kayakers and firewood. Two kayakers planned to stay the night. And the rest of us left to arrive at takeout about dark. At the takeout we met rafters in the other boat of the party. They were first through Skull in an oar boat, flipped in the hole, and swam/rode capsized raft through Bowling Alley past Sock It To Me. They didn’t know what had happened until the first kayakers sent to call for help arrived at takeout. We learned that the BLM rangers decided to wait and launch rescue boat in the morning. It was a pitch black night. Fortunately the low temperatures probably didn’t drop below the 40s.

Kathryn Streletzky

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