I was also in the group that came upon the scene after 10-15 minutes. My immediate reaction was that the tragedy had already happened, but we had to do our best even though we were realistic about our chances of a successful rescue. I have basic training in Wilderness First Responder and Swiftwater Rescue, and the others in our group also have rescue skills, training and experience. This was my first serious life threatening rescue, and today I'm thankful that I took the time to get trained before
I needed it. I hope my account here is helpful to others who read about accidents as part of their outdoor education process.
The other boaters in the James' party had understandably lost morale. They reported James had been underwater for 10 minutes. He was pinned under the large rock river-right 15 feet down stream below Moist Slot, the first drop after the first bridge below the regular put-in for SBC. Flow was about 475 cfs. His head was visible about a foot below the surface with his hands on top of the water.
Two boaters from James' party were standing on the rock above him. They signaled with a flat hand across the throat, and then made a "Z" in the air requesting a z-drag. I admit at times I wasn't sure if we should be acting in rescue or recovery mode. Schizzle's five minute time limit is well supported, but none of us let that stop us from continuing our efforts. Two boaters from our party ferried across to the rock where James was pinned. They clipped a biner onto his PFD with a 6-7mm throw bag line and threw the other end across the river and upstream to the river-left rescuers. Two of us pulled on the line and James did move a bit, but we were not able to break him free. We felt some small jerks on the line, and we thought we were making some progress, but in fact we were only ripping the sheath off of the line. Lesson 1: A small throw bag line may not withstand the forces required to pull someone out of a sieve.
We then spent about 5 minutes working with pulleys, biners and anchors setting up a z-drag. This turned out to be unnecessary. The river-right rescuers also clipped a second line (9mm?) on James and threw that to the river-left rescuers. Then the three river-left rescuers tied grab loops in the small degenerating line and moved to an angle slightly more upstream. With three rescuers pulling on river-left, and two rescuers above James on river-right, the core of the line held and we were able to free him from the sieve. If the core had broken, I'm not sure we wouldn't have had someone else in the hole. This was probably our biggest risk to the rescuers.
We pulled him over to river right on a flat rock just out of the water and began CPR. His face was white, and his pupils were fixed and dilated. After the first rescue breath, we could hear a significant amount of water in his lungs. Three of us rotated CPR positions for about 30 minutes until paramedics arrived. Occasionally someone would wander into the "red zone" with a radio and street shoes. We kindly asked them to move back to a more safe location. The CPR was effective, in that we saw good capillary refill in his face, but of course he was failing to respond. When the paramedics arrived we carried James up to the path on river-left where they put the EKG on him. It was flat.
One of the paramedics was a boater who had successfully pulled his friend out of the same sieve only a year ago. He was very professional and gave James every chance he could. Watching their urgency and professionalism convinced me that we made the right decision to stay in rescue mode, even though we were not successful. Lesson 2: Stay in rescue mode.
This seems obvious, but in practice I found it hard to not get discouraged. A friend of mine pointed out that even though we weren't able to save James, perhaps he will be a viable organ donor because of our continued CPR - we may have saved someone else or even several others. Thirty minutes of CPR is not a fun job when it's so clear he won't survive, but it's the right thing to do. Keep up the morale!
The mysterious 18 minute timeframe came from me and another in our party. The paramedic asked us how long he was underwater. We said we didn't know but he wanted us to guess so we pulled the "18 minutes" out of the air. The press didn't make up the number, we did. Of course, none of us knew for sure. When we first arrived on the scene a member of James' party said he had been under for 10 minutes. He had already recognized they needed help, run up to the road and found a mountain biker and then ran back to the scene and found us in that amount of time. It probably wasn't any less than 10 minutes at that time, maybe longer. We don't even know how long it took us to get him out after we arrived. My best guess is that it was another 10 or 15 minutes. I estimate that he was underwater for a total of 20-30 minutes, but time moves in a different direction when someone is dying.
It sounds like everyone did what they could to save James. My heart goes out to the family and friends, especially the three who had to watch tragedy unfold. At some point, when they are ready, I hope they will be able to contribute to the dialog for the safety of others. I have notified Charlie Walbridge from the AW Safety Committee of this thread. For more information about accidents and responses, see the American Whitewater Safety
Please remember the ones who care about you when you're making good judgments.