kitchen table math, the sequel: the deep

Thursday, July 31, 2008

the deep

This is off-topic, but I'm posting anyway.

One of Ed's colleagues has lost his young son in a white-water rafting accident. As I understand it, the kayak capsized and the little boy, who was wearing a life jacket, was caught underneath something in the water and couldn't surface. No one could see him beneath the white foam.

I had no idea -- none -- that white water rafting could be so dangerous. Our tennis teacher told me yesterday that his college roommate lost a friend in a white water rafting accident when she fell into the water and had a heart attack, apparently due to the shock of going from the 100-degree temperature in the kayak to 68-degree water. This was a college student in her late teens or early twenties.

I bring this up only because if I had young kids I'd want to re-jigger my sense of the danger that may be involved. I think the family was on a packaged trip; they didn't go out and do this on their own.

16 comments:

palisadesk said...

Amen to that. When I was in grad school, I went on a white water rafting expedition sponsored by the university outing club. The location was somewhere in western PA as I recall.

The trip was properly organized, outfitted etc. but going through one set of rapids, the raft I was in hit a large boulder at just the wrong angle and I was thrown into the water, as if shot by a catapult.

I was wearing a life jacket, of course, and was a good swimmer at the time, with Red Cross lifesaving certificates, etc. None of this mattered. The water was so deep, cold, fast-flowing and the swirl and current so strong, that I could not swim nor even get my head to the surface. All those things you read about in near-death experience stories started happening. Despite my best efforts I could NOT get up to the surface and I was being bashed against rocks and was losing consciousness. Suddenly hands grabbed my life jacket -- rafters in a different raft managed to catch hold of the jacket, hold on until the rapids diminished and then pull me aboard.

It was a close call. I remember very little about what happened in the immediate aftermath, but I have had absolutely NO desire to go rafting ever again, though I subsequently went wilderness canoeing on multiple occasions.

If an adult who is a good swimmer has little chance, I can't imagine how a kid would fare in such an incident. Additionally, hypothermia sets in much more quickly in a child because of their low body weight. That alone can kill them even if they don't drown.

GoogleMaster said...

Condolences to Ed's colleague's family. I found a news story with more details, but am reluctant to post a link because I don't know how close you are to the family.

Regarding my perception of whitewater rafting...

Maybe I have had too much water safety instruction (but I haven't, other than the standard boating/fishing safety info), maybe my parents instilled in me an excessively cautious nature ("you're going to put your eye out that way!" "watch out, you'll lose a toe!"), or maybe I read too much (is there such a thing?), but when I picture whitewater rafting, I immediately put it in the category of "things people do for a thrill where part of the thrill is the danger of death/dismemberment", a category which includes skydiving, bull-riding, and street racing.

Possibly another part of my association of danger with whitewater is that I didn't grow up anywhere near a place that you could do that. In my Googling today, I found that apparently it is a rite of passage for high school students in some areas. In those areas, they probably don't think anything of it.

Jean said...

I'm sorry for this little boy's family. I've never been whitewater rafting, since my uncle was killed in a very similar accident when I was little. He was trapped under the raft and had a heart attack--he was about 28, I think. His friends floated safely down the river and didn't realize he was even in trouble until it was much too late.

I suppose everything in life has its hazards, and these fatalities are pretty rare, but whitewater rafting still feels too dangerous to me.

Catherine Johnson said...

oh my gosh; these stories are awful

I just had no idea --- and I'm sure the family had no idea, either. (We're not close as families; the dad is someone Ed sees frequently as a colleague.)

oh gosh

I just Googled it, too.

I'd been resisting doing that.

My mom gave all of us tons of swimming lessons when we were kids, and the result is that I don't have proper respect for the water AT ALL. (I'm not complaining about the lessons, just saying I developed a false sense of security.)

My own sister nearly drowned in the ocean when the undertow caught her years ago (I think it dashed her against some rocks on the shore instead of carrying her out to sea? -- something like that...basically, it was luck that she lived).

She also has lifelong guilt because of a boy who drowned on her watch as a teen lifeguard, when one kid jumped off the tower at our town lake and landed on another.

The guards dived into the water over and over again, trying to get to the boy who'd been hit. It was impossible.

Even knowing those two stories, I still didn't have a sense of what the dangers were.

Ed was up most of the night.

Couldn't sleep.

Catherine Johnson said...

I was wearing a life jacket, of course, and was a good swimmer at the time, with Red Cross lifesaving certificates, etc. None of this mattered. The water was so deep, cold, fast-flowing and the swirl and current so strong, that I could not swim nor even get my head to the surface. All those things you read about in near-death experience stories started happening. Despite my best efforts I could NOT get up to the surface and I was being bashed against rocks and was losing consciousness.

This is the kind of thing we need to know ---- or I need to know, at any rate.

A couple of years ago my neighbor's dog fell through the ice....and I shimmied out on the ice to try to get to her and fell in, too.

I had actually "calculated," before doing that, whether I had any chance of dying or not.

My answer was "no."

Obviously, I'm still here, but the cold was unbelievable, and I had to walk a mile home in wind.

I was sick for a day ---- by sick I probably mean something like "borderline in shock."

Again....I had no idea what "life-threatening cold" meant until I'd actually fallen through ice and experienced it myself.

Catherine Johnson said...

Despite my best efforts I could NOT get up to the surface and I was being bashed against rocks and was losing consciousness.

That's the part that's counterintuitive to me. I think of lakes....(no white water where I grew up, either)....

That's what happened with this little boy. He didn't surface; they had to search for him.

Catherine Johnson said...

hi Jean ---

thanks, all, for sharing these stories

C just got home from his summer program (which, last year, included white water rafting), and of course I've told him all of your experiences

K9Sasha said...

The Rogue River, near where I live, has lots of whitewater rapids and lots and lots of float trips all summer. This summer, so far, at least two people have drowned at the same place on the river. I guess there's a pretty dangerous stretch of rapids and both people fell out of their rafts (separate rafts, separate trips) and got caught under the current with the force of the water holding them against some rocks. Divers weren't able to reach either one of them. The man's body finally freed itself after about a week. The woman, who went under a little less than a week ago, is still unreachable (as far as I've heard).

I just heard last night on the news that in a three county area (including mine), we've had 12 deaths so far this summer on the rivers. We had a lot of snow on the mountains last winter and the rivers are running higher than normal this summer.

I'm so, so sorry for the loss of the little boy you wrote about. Such a sad, tragic thing to happen.

Catherine Johnson said...

got caught under the current with the force of the water holding them against some rocks

After I read palisadesk's experience, Ed and I were talking about the little boy, and in our minds it seems that has to be what happened. We had been told (or had assumed) that he'd gotten "trapped" under the water, or that his life jacket had caught on something --- which is a dangerous assumption, because that account makes it sound like a freak accident, akin to dying in a car crash because your seat belt got stuck. (Unless seat belts getting stuck is another hideous danger I'm unaware of...)

I had absolutely no idea that the current in white water could force you below the surface and keep you there.

Why isn't this part of common knowledge???

I grew up in central IL, but I knew that ocean currents and riptides could carry you out to sea.

And yet until yesterday I had no idea that white water poses a similar danger.

Catherine Johnson said...

Ed said the rabbi was incredible. He was so strong for the family, so important to getting everyone through the day -- and through the days to come -- that he wanted to become religious. (What have I been telling you?? No atheists in foxholes.)

The rabbi also has an 8-year old son. He spoke to the older brother; he told him that he would be very sad, but he should still play and have fun with his friends, that his brother would want him to.

He told the parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles that they had suffered a gash in their family, and he said that it would get better although it would not heal completely.

He said, We don't know why people are taken from us, or when they will be taken from us, so if there is someone you should forgive, or someone you think you should forgive, do that today.

The parents spoke, too. The father said that half an hour before his son fell out of the boat he told his dad, "This is the best day of my life."

SteveH said...

"Why isn't this part of common knowledge???"

I've seen a few explanations of this on TV, but I wouldn't say that it's common knowledge. But with rafting/ kayak tours, you tend to assume that they know how to reduce the risk to almost zero. But I won't go bungee jumping, no matter what they tell me. I don't like flying in my friend's small plane. Did you ever notice that after all small plane crashes, they always seem to say how experienced the pilot was?

In our area, kids are told over and over again not to jump off the cliffs into the water. Not only are there hidden rocks, but the ocean swells can kill you even on a calm day. A 20-something year old died here a few weeks ago not because he dove in and hit a rock, but because he couldn't get out of the water. The swells picked him up and smashed him on the rocks. People were right there and someone was able to climb down and grab his arm. He couldn't hold on.

Actually, what I worry about the most are simple things, like when my son rides his bike.

Tex said...

This is so sad for this family. I don’t think it’s something most of us think about when we consider risks we take while vacationing.

Keep your feet up if you fall out of the raft! That’s the safety advice that’s supposed to minimize the danger of your legs getting caught under a rock. I’m sure that the outfitters who run these trips give the participants some basic safety orientation before they go.

My son goes rafting yearly with his Scout troop. Most of the time the whitewater is minimal. I’m pretty sure they do not wear helmets. He’s away at Scout camp right now (no whitewater), and my parting words to him are always, “be careful and stay safe”. At that moment I don’t care if he has fun, I just want him to come back alive. I worry too much sometimes.

One of the most frightening experiences I’ve ever had was being thrown off a raft during a whitewater trip. Thankfully, we all made it to shore. No lifejackets; we were just a bunch of kids floating down the river. I can still remember how hard my knees were shaking, and desperately wishing a helicopter would just magically come down to pick us up. I did NOT want to get back into the raft. We all lost our glasses, and could not see a thing for the rest of the trip.

I never even thought about hypothermia and heart attacks.

Catherine Johnson said...

A 20-something year old died here a few weeks ago not because he dove in and hit a rock, but because he couldn't get out of the water.

exactly --- for farmers like me, that's a foreign concept ----- EXCEPT that I heard plenty of tales of ocean currents when I was a kid to make me permanently afraid of oceans.

Nevertheless, when you've grown up around lakes & creeks, you just don't have an image of water as a physical force that can overpower you.

Catherine Johnson said...

don't get me started on bike riding

our neighbors in Studio City lost their daughter in a bike accident

also on a family vacation, beautiful, clear day & a straight, deserted road

Catherine Johnson said...

Most of the time the whitewater is minimal.

that's another thing ---- the family was white water rafting in "level 3" rapids. Another of Ed's colleagues grew up in CO, and has gone white water rafting a number of times. He thought that was awfully strong to have children in -- and he said he'd never taken his own kids white water rafting.

This family, like me, knew nothing about it ---- nothing at all. They trusted the company that put the trip together.

Catherine Johnson said...

Tex - YUP: I had NO idea you can have a heart attack from sudden hypothermia.

If I had, I might have had to let my neighbor's dog drown.

That episode, along with a couple of others, taught me that I have almost no ability to think in a crisis.

The reason the dog couldn't get out of the pond was that she kept trying to climb back up onto the ice shelf she'd fallen off of & she couldn't. It was too slippery.

She had also panicked and become rigid. We were standing a few yards away, on a part of the bank that didn't have any ice, calling her, but she wouldn't swim over to us even though she must have seen the other family dog do so. She just kept perseveratively trying to climb back up on the ice shelf.

All we needed to do to get her out was find a big enough stick to BREAK UP THE ICE where she was so she could climb up on shore where she'd fallen, or we could pull her out.

Neither of us (neither my neighbor nor I) was able to think of this.

I was able to recall the idea of shimmying out on my stomach instead of walking, so as to distribute my weight, and I was able to reason my way through whether I was likely to die (incorrectly as I now discover) and how many clothes I should take off first, because I knew that if I did fall in, I'd need dry clothes to put on once I got out.

So....I could think, but I couldn't invent.

I couldn't come up with the solution I needed to come up with.