Flush-Drowning The Tico Times Online - News Vol. VI, No. 4-
San Jose, Costa Rica, January 28, 2000
Rafting Safety Questions after 2 Tourists die on Pacuare; Rafting Safety in Doubt Again
By Mauricio Espinoza Tico Times Staff
A rafting accident that killed two U.S. tourists last Saturday on the rapids of the Pacuare River could have been prevented, according to people in the rafting business and one of the survivors. Joseph Huter, 53 - a tile and carpet businessman from Chicago, Illinois - and Monique Sadler, also 53 - an administrator for Kraft Foods in Milwaukee, Wisconsin - died after falling out of the raft in which they were challenging the furious waters of the Pacuare, on the Caribbean slope. Four other U.S. tourists - who were traveling around Costa Rica with Huter and Sadler - were also thrown into the river and suffered minor injuries. They are Brian Carlson, 52; his girlfriend, Leslie Selick, 45; Ron Sonntag, 58 (Monique's fiancee); and Ron's son, Chris Sontagg, 23. All are from Milwaukee.
According to Carlson - who owns a rafting and kayaking business in Wisconsin - Sadler and Ron Sonntag had experience in rafting. Also on the raft were Costa Ricans Porfirio Joaquin Garcia, the guide for Tico's Rivers - the Turrialba-based rafting company that took the six tourists on the world-famous Pacuare - and Carlos Nunez, an independent tour operator who drove the foreigners to Turrialba.
Because of the rainy weather conditions prevailing on the Caribbean slope last weekend, on Saturday most companies that organize rafting trips on the Reventazon and Pacuare rivers decided to cancel their tours. However, Tico's Rivers and at least one other company - Aventuras Naturales - sent rafts down the Pacuare. According to Aventuras Naturales, one of the largest rafting companies in the country, only one of its rafts was on the river early on Saturday. Roberto Garcia, co-owner of Tico's Rivers, told The Tico Times that when the trip started, the water level of the Pacuare was normal. However, he said, two hours later weather conditions worsened, which ultimately caused the tragedy. "I was told that a flash flood coming from one of the tributaries of the river hit the raft and provoked the accident," he said.
However, Michael Kaye, owner of Costa Rica Expeditions - the pioneer of rafting adventures in Costa Rica - told The Tico Times that although there's no proof that negligence was involved in the accident, the tragedy could have been prevented. "The golden rule in this business is that if the other companies cancel their tours, you do it too," Kaye said. Kaye mentioned two other factors that could have contributed to the mishap. "When there are many boats on the river, the rescue capacity is greater, and in this case no one else was around to help the victims, except the two safety kayakers who paddled along with the raft," he said. "Besides, there were eight people on a raft that shouldn't have more than seven."
Garcia pointed out that Tico's Tours usually hits the water earlier than the other companies. Consequently, the company didn't find out that everyone else was canceling their tours until the raft was already on the rapids. "It was an accident," he asserted. "The river was fine when the tour started. We've been in this business for many years... we're not mere apprentices." Garcia also claimed that the 14.5-foot raft they employed for the ride can safely carry as many as eight people. The accident took place in the class-four rapid Las Huacas Arriba - which has strong currents and whirlpools - 15 kilometers after Tres Equis, where the Pacuare tours usually start. Sadler's body was found near the site of the accident on Saturday. Huter's body was not recovered until Sunday morning, further down the river.
According to the Judicial Investigative Police (OIJ), both Huter and Sadler died by drowning. Initially, the Red Cross had reported that Huter had a wound on his head, while Sadler was bleeding from her nose. Brian Carlson, one of the survivors, told The Tico Times that everything about the rafting trip was confusing. "Everyone in the group had second thoughts about going down the river that day," Carlson said. "Someone said that the river levels had been low during the last two days, but then we saw all the other rafts going in the opposite direction...I was confused." Carlson agreed that what happened on Saturday was an accident, but complained about the quality of the equipment Tico's Tours makes available to its customers. "Joe had to wear an old, dirty helmet that wouldn't snap at his chin," he recalled. "It was too late to get another one, so he went on the trip with a loose helmet. That might explain why his head was bleeding. "Also, the guide's vest was so old that when he fell in the water, the foam started coming out of it. One of the safety kayakers had to rescue him because his vest wasn't helping him at all." Carlson - who will leave Costa Rica on Monday - added that the tragedy might have been avoided if more rafts had been on the river that day. Regarding Carlson's complaints, Dinorah Quiros - owner of Tico's Rivers - told The Tico Times that the company's equipment is totally safe. She said the National Insurance Institute (INS) is scheduled to inspect the equipment today.
Since 1978, four fatalities had been recorded on Costa Rica's rapids. The most recent occurred on Nov. 28, 1996, when Edward Gerace, 55, from Tampa, Florida, drowned in the Reventazon River (TT, Dec. 6, 1996). Since 1996, industry and government have been demanding stricter controls regulating whitewater sports in Costa Rica, but nothing has come of it. Currently, some 20 companies offer rafting tours in the country.