The following information is an attempt to provide a first-hand, factual account of the events that led to the death of our dear friend and fellow rafter Dirk Gombert of Idaho Falls on April 19th. The members of the rafting group have collaborated on this report to ensure accuracy.
The group involved consisted of 4 rafts (2 catarafts and 2 traditional rafts) and 9 people. The oarsmen were all highly skilled and experienced having rafted several class IV rapids/rivers over their rafting careers. All rafters had their life vests on and, in fact, the victim also had on a dry suit. (Alcohol was not a factor.) The accident occurred in a rapid known as hooker ledge or S-turn. The traditional lower water route through this rapid is typically to the far river right. However, at this water flow (~16,500 cfs), there is ample water to allow a center route through the rapid. These options were discussed prior to entering the rapid by the lead boats. Since a clean route was visible and since there was some uncertainty about the difficulty making it from the far right to the center of the river in preparation for running the more difficult downstream rapid known as "let's make a deal," the lead rafters decided on the center route. (This was also the route they had taken successfully ~ 3 years prior when the flow was ~ 19,000 cfs.) Three rafts had successfully negotiated the rapid, which had numerous routes over the ledge that avoided the reversals. A typical rating for the rapid where the event occurred would probably be a Class II+ or III- at this water flow. So the rapid in question was less difficult than these rafters had negotiated earlier that day and numerous times in the past.
The oarsmen involved, a 20+ year veteran oarsmen with extensive Class IV rapid experience including this section and others (e.g. Bruneau, Middle Fork of the Salmon, etc.), was following the same line as the previous three rafts/catarafts when he inadvertently caught an oar on a rock, breaking the oar. Catching an oar on rocks routinely happens when rafting, especially in murky water. Typically, this type of accident will break an oar blade or pop the oar out of the oar-lock, but in this case for some unknown reason, the oar shaft broke, rendering the oar useless. The oarsman quickly (~ 5 seconds) grabbed his spare oar and had it in position, when, too late, they noticed they were headed into a ledge reversal. Literally, had there been a couple more seconds allowing another couple oar strokes, the raft would have caught the slot leading them past the reversal or they would have entered the pour-over bow-to-stern (vs. sideways) and likely have made it through.
Once in the reversal, the raft initially almost flipped and likely would have had the rafters not immediately jumped to the high-side. The raft and the people inside were being tossed back-and-forth and periodically the raft would rotate 180 degrees requiring them to move to the other side of the boat to avoid it flipping. Prior to moving downstream, the other 3 rafts wanted to ensure the group was together before running "let's make a deal" and one of the rafters alertly noticed the 4th boat wasn't with them and appeared to be caught upstream in a reversal. It took ~10-15 minutes for these rafts to make it back upstream through shallower, calmer water and willows to a location below the raft caught in the ledge reversal. The two catarafts positioned themselves as safety boats in the two channels of water downstream of the reversal in order to catch any people or gear and prevent any swimmers from floating into “let’s make a deal.” The other raft oarsman was finally, by wading through the willows, able to get within ~75 feet directly downstream of the raft, but too far to toss them a rescue rope/throw bag. All the while, due to the violent nature of the reversal, the 4 people on the raft were periodically and individually being washed out of the boat and having to be pulled back in by those remaining. This happened at least 5 times to the 3 surviving rafters (the victim was never washed out), each time making them colder and more exhausted. The oarsman tried everything he could to free the raft from the reversal, such as using an oar to pry the boat out and even flipping the boat, but to no avail. All three of the oars were severely bent or broken in the attempts to free the raft. They were attempting to get their throw bag with ~75' of rope down to the rafters below the reversal, but each time they were ready, someone would get washed out or the boat would rotate 180 degrees preventing a sure throw. (A poor throw would have resulted in the rope being pulled into the reversal, creating an even greater hazard.) It is uncertain if the people below could have pulled the boat or people out even if they been able to get a rope downstream, but it was worth attempting since other options had failed. However, this no longer became an option after the turbulent water washed the throw bag out of the raft.
Also, while the river was busy that day with numerous people, there was a long break in between this group and the next, thus no help was available from upstream. Finally, one of the rafters got washed out of the boat and got separated from it. When this happened, the current took him underwater and flushed him out downstream of the boil line (the point in a reversal where part of the water heads downstream and part returns upstream to the pour-over). He floated down to the shallows/willows below where one of the rafters was able to grab him. Once this occurred, the 3 rafters remaining on the boat, who by this time had been in the reversal ~ 30 minutes, were getting weak and starting to get hypo-thermic. They also knew that having another person get washed out of the boat and hauled back in was perhaps too much to take. So, the oarsman, with the other two in agreement, said our best option is to jump past the boil-line. They all got on the downstream side of the raft and jumped toward the boil-line. While two made it, one did not make it past the boil-line and got recirculated back to the boat where he held-on the best he could until it appeared he no longer could. Shortly after he lost consciousness, a matter of minutes (< 5), his body flushed out of the reversal and was pulled to the shallows by one of the rafters, where immediately mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was started by rafters from the original group. Shortly after starting mouth-to-mouth (~ two minutes), a group of kayakers were waved down and came over to help. One of them was a doctor and indicated we also need to give him Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR), but it was impossible to do so in the waist-deep water. So we moved him to one of the rafts where CPR was given until the helicopter arrived close to an hour later. He never regained consciousness while on the river. The rafter was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead approximately an hour later. To our knowledge, the exact cause of death has not been determined.
During the hour before the helicopter arrived, the near hypo-thermic rafters were provided warm dry clothing by the gracious group of kayakers/catarafters who had gathered at the scene. Another catarafter and one of the original group catarafters shuttled the surviving rafters to shore where they subsequently hiked out of the canyon to search and rescue/law enforcement personnel located on the canyon rim.
The raft remained in the reversal for several hours after the remaining party floated to the take-out. Later that evening, a motor boat found the raft in slow water above the take-out and towed the raft into the dock. The throw bag/rescue rope was severely tangled with a broken oar and the self-bailing floor had been ripped out of the boat and had filled with water.
Additional information can be found on my blog:
Black Mirror - Josh McDannel: Rivers, Code, Cards, and Deep Thoughts - Blog - Rafting Accident on Murtaugh (Snake*River)
Please be respectful of those involved in this tragedy during our discussion. And again, thank you to all who have sent messages of support, sympathy, and prayer.