Accident Database

Report ID# 81

  • Unknown
  • Does not Apply
  • Failed Rescue

Accident Description

"Rapid #4" near Buena Vista, Colorado: June 12, 1991
Volume: High (Gauge 3.5 - 4.0 ft); Gradient 84 ft/mi
Classification: V

SUMMARY: On June 12, 1991 a strong team of local paddlers planned a run down the "Numbers" section of the Arkansas at high water. At Rapid #4 the victim, Joe Groff, flipped while playing the large hole at the top of the drop and did not roll up. Despite a heroic effort on the part of one of his friends to get him to shore, he never regained consciousness.

DESCRIPTION: The "Numbered Drops" of the Arkansas form the basis for one of the country's premier whitewater runs. At the 3.5-4.0'level (measured at the Rapid #1 bridge; approximately 2200 cfs) the river offers big class IV-V rapids. The rapids are quite continuous at this level, and rescuing a helpless paddler is at best difficult.

Groff was running with a strong group of local paddlers. Like them, he was very familiar with the river. Rapid #4 has a large hole at top left; the group scouted the drop and Groff decided to try to punch it. He was caught, surfed, and flipped violently before being spit out. Although in set-up position, he never rolled. With most of the group occupied with playing upstream, it was left to one paddler, Doug Ragan, to chase him down and snowplow him to shore. This he did in the big waves which followed, getting him ashore in the brief respite between rapids #4 and #5. Ragan started CPR at once, but he was not successful in bringing him back.

SOURCES: Ric Alesh, Colorado Whitewater Association;  Steve Reese, Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area; Doug Ragan


1) I am unclear as to why the victim, a strong paddler, did not roll up or bail out. There was no evidence of head injury, and Ragan noticed no struggle. Indeed, it initially seemed like Groff was just "hanging out", waiting for an opportunity to roll. He may have held his breath too long; the water was extremely cold, and some sort of laryngospasm can't be ruled out.

2) Rescuing an unconscious paddler under these conditions is extremely difficult even for a strong paddler. Bailing out and swimming over to the victim and pulling him out of his boat was, under these conditions, simply too risky. Doug Ragan made the rescue single-handedly and must be com- mended for his outstanding effort. Perhaps a rescue PFD or a towing system could have been attached to the victim, but this has not been proven under actual conditions yet.

3) I'm not clear as to why the group became split as it did, but it's questionable whether any extra manpower could have made much difference.


Flush-drownings are not uncommon when high water adds to the risks of running fast, continuous rivers. This danger, and the difficulty of rescue, must always be kept in mind when scouting or planning similar runs, especially in the West. (CW)

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