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Accident Description


On June 21, 1998 I was with Friends of the River on an 11-day whitewater guide training class on the South Fork of the American River near Lotus, CA. This popular Class III+ summer run was running very high, with flows of about 6500 cfs. I was planning to work as a safety kayaker.

As we were unloading boats at Chili Bar, I happened to look downstream about 100 yards from my vantage point. I saw a two boat trip from another outfitter enter the short wave train opposite the put-in (the location at lower flows of the famous Chili Bar hole). The trip consisted of one paddle raft and one oar rig. The paddle-raft attempted to enter the large, turbulent eddy on river-left and flipped on the eddy line, dumping the guide and passengers.

At lower flows, commercial raft trips usually collect in this eddy before proceeding downstream from the put-in. However, the eddy presents problems at high flows. A progressive landslide on river-left above the eddy has fed trees and other strainers into the river at this point. The eddy itself is very turbulent, with a very nasty eddy-fence that generates large whirlpools. 

After seeing the guide right the paddle raft, and seeing what seemed to be most of the passengers getting to shore, I frankly didn’t give the event much more thought, and returned to working with the other guides to get our trip ready. It is very common to see rafts flip here at low flows, when Chili Bar hole is present, and these things generally sort themselves out. 

However, downstream on the beach opposite the rapid and eddy, bystanders saw one of the swimmers become entrapped in some of the few remaining branches attached to a large downed tree. It lay in the water along the river-left bank, extending from the bottom of the eddy where the flip occurred. They attracted the attention of a Friends of the River guide who saw the entrapment point, and who then recruited three nearby kayakers to respond from the beach. One of those kayakers reported that he also had been aware that the raft flipped, but hadn’t really been very concerned until he saw the flash of yellow PFD in the water beneath the tree.

It took a while for the other kayakers to ferry to river-left, find safe landing spots, then make their way along the steep slope and across boulders and debris to the log. The first two kayakers were not clear about the location of the victim, and were searching in the vicinity of the tree's root ball. Taking direction from people on the opposite shore, they began to crawl the length of the log to the victim. The victim’s PFD washed free about this time, causing a bit of delay and confusion. Eventually, with the assistance of the bystanders across the river, one of the kayakers glimpsed the victim’s wetsuit in the current and was able to reach the right spot. 

The kayaker struggled for several minutes trying to free the victim. He eventually determined that one of the victim’s lower legs was stuck between two large branches. The leg was bent at the knee, and the body bent back into the current. Another kayaker passed a rope from shore, and he was able to float it around the victim’s body and tie a loop. Initial efforts to pull the victim free by rope failed. Eventually, he was able to lower himself into the water and use his foot and leg to push her foot and leg free of the branches. Rescuers were then able to pull the victim to shore with a rope where they initiated CPR.

I heard about the accident and paddled to river-left and climbed down to the accident scene. As the only EMT on the scene at that point, I took over direction of the CPR efforts (which were proceeding very ably when I arrived). About 5-10 minutes later, a deputy sheriff - EMT arrived and took over the scene. We continued CPR until the raft, rowed by a guide from OARS, was able to reach river-left immediately below the log. We then carried the victim along the shore and over boulders and debris until we could place her in the raft. We made no attempt to continue CPR during the several minutes required for that effort. CPR was resumed in the raft as it ferried to river-right. There she was transferred to the care of a waiting paramedic and ambulance. Afterwards, I went back upstream to console two remaining passengers from the ill-fated trip and to ferry them back to the launch area. 

The victim was a 27-year-old woman wearing both a wetsuit and PFD. She was immersed about tem minutes before she was extracted. News reports stated that she regained pulse and respiration, but died six days later. When the river dropped to 2000 cfs, river rangers identified a gnarly-looking stump as the pin spot and removed it with saws. 

SOURCE: Written by Rich Penny

ANALYSIS: (Walbridge) Although the Chili Bar run is not difficult at summer flows, the rapids become very powerful as the river gets high. Combine this with shoreline debris and you have a solid Class IV big-water run. In big water, eddies are often unfriendly, and it may be wise to give some of them a wide berth.