When four American tourists and a local guide were killed in a late October rafting accident on Costa Rica's Rio Naranjo, it sent ripples of apprehension and heightened awareness through the rafting community, both domestically and abroad.
What We Know
A popular rafting run, the Naranjo forms the southern border of Manuel Antonio National Park and offers several different sections, including a lower, six-mile stretch from Villanueva to the Llamarón Bridge; and the upper, Class IV El Chorro section, a tight canyon where the accident occurred on Saturday, October 20, at 3 p.m..
With the river running high, three rafts flipped near Liverpool de Quepos and the five victims were carried away downstream. Some trip participants managed to cling to the rafts and some were rescued by a safety kayaker. In all, 14 guests—many members of a bachelor party trip—were aboard the three rafts, along with five guides. All were wearing PFDs and helmets.
The Associated Press identified the victims as Americans Ernesto Sierra, Jorge Caso, Sergio Lorenzo, and Andres Dennis, and local guide Kevin Thompson Reid. Local authorities confirmed the river was swollen by rains, with the National Emergency Commission issuing a flood alert in the area.
Survivor Anthony Castro’s Account
As told to CNN: “What was meant to be a weekend to remember for 14 friends turned into a living nightmare,” adding the group had planned a number of activities during the trip for friend and groom Luis Beltran. The bachelor party group arrived at the river amid high winds and rain, causing the guides to delay putting on for an hour.
“Within five minutes of being out on the river, all three rafts capsized, and everyone ended up in the water,” he added. Thirteen of the people pitched into the water were able to grab hold of the overturned rafts, while the other members of the party were swept downstream. Castro said the river’s “immense current” kept flipping the rafts as he and others tried to pull themselves out of the water.
Among those carried away, Castro said he banged off rocks and battled to keep his head above water. “All of us struggled to stay above water,” he said, adding that some of them were able to grab onto rocks along the river, but four of his friends, including the groom’s brother, were not among them. “Luis, the man we hoped to celebrate all weekend, lost a brother and we all lost four great friends during this vacation which went horribly wrong.”
What We Learned
Pay Attention to Water Levels: "We often see flush drownings connected with high water on both private and commercial trips," says Charlie Walbridge, American Whitewater's accident database manager who has been monitoring whitewater accidents since 1975.
"Often participants have traveled long distances and are reluctant to cancel when “high water” becomes “too high” or “flood-stage” which can lead to tragic results. There's often quite a bit of pressure to put on and run. Deciding to change plans is tough for both outfitter and private paddler, but it must be done. You need to know and heed the warning signs," adds Miles DeFeyTer, who used to safety kayak the El Chorro stretch: "It's super sad news. The drive in from Quepos is long and pretty treacherous in its own right. The rains probably continued during their run and caught them off guard."
Judgment is Key: "The accident was just terrible judgment as the river at the put-in was at flood level," maintains Rafael Gallo, owner of longtime Costa Rican outfitter Rios Tropicales, which was not the outfitter involved. "Others decided not to run trips that day." Adds Walbridge: "You have to be honest with yourself all the time regarding conditions."
High Water Ups the Ante: "Flush drownings occur pretty regularly," says Walbridge. "High water is a tremendous variable. And there's a big difference between high water and way-too-frickin' high water that's out of your control. I've been on a few I shouldn't have been on. It's great when everything's working, but totally different when you flip and swim. It's very hard to manage and get all the pieces of your party safely back together. And a river doesn’t have to be flashing. It's a story that's repeated fairly often: The river's high, a boat flips, and all the passengers are recovered except one, who floated downstream."
It Can Happen to Commercial Trips As Well Private: Nothing against outfitters, for whom the safety of their guests is paramount, but accidents like this aren't just restricted to private parties. “Accidents like this have certainly happened to both commercial and private groups," says Walbridge. "Outfitters aren’t immune to high water levels either."
Certain Locations See More Flashes: The question to ask, says Walbridge, is did it flash, or was it just high? Did they know, or get caught? Regardless, certain areas of the world are more prone to flash floods, and extra caution should be exercised. "What you see a lot in Central and South America is rivers flashing, which we don’t have as much here in the States," he says. “But it can still happen anywhere.”
Other Notable High Water Accidents
Unfortunate as the Costa Rica tragedy is, the accident emulates other high-water calamities in South and North America, a few of which are highlighted below:
Chilko River, British Columbia, August 1987
Five rafters were killed in a high-water accident on this river, when an outfitter put on during high flows on the Chilko's Lava Canyon section in a single, 18-foot raft, without any backup safety support. The accident was re-enacted in the 1994 Alan Alda movie, "White Mile."
Sardinas Grande River, Ecuador, December 2015
In this accident, says Walbridge, a very skilled group of kayakers hiked in a long way through the jungle to run Ecuador's Sardinas Grande River, only to see it too high to run. They waited for it to drop, and when it didn’t, they put on anyway instead of facing the long hike out. Several members of the party were killed when it continued rising in a flash flood. "It can happen anywhere, to anybody," says Walbridge.
Rio Abanico, Ecuador, January 2018
In this accident, three expert kayakers from the UK died after being caught in a flash flood on a remote jungle river in Ecuador. According to Walbridge, the victims "went through a lot of trouble to get there and likely thought, 'Oh, we can handle it.'"
Illinois River, Oregon, March 1998
On this trip, a "very experienced group of guides from the New River's North American River Runners" put on for a multi-day rafting trip on Oregon's Illinois River, only to see it rise 15 feet on them overnight, going from 1,700 to 17,000 cfs when they were in the heart of the canyon.
A two-person "Shredder-type" raft capsized in a pourover, carrying victim Jeff Alexander more than five miles downstream. "They were a very experienced team, and got caught by a flash flood," says Walbridge. "If anyone could have handled it, it would have been them." Walbridge says that the river went from "high to an insane level" very quickly, adding that a leaky neck gasket might have caused the victim's drysuit to fill with water.
Cheat River, West Virginia, June 1980
On this trip, an outfitter put a trip on West Virginia's Cheat River, only to see the river crest at 18 feet on the gauge, up from its normal level of 2.5 feet. "Four feet on the Cheat is about 6,000 cfs," says Walbridge, a longtime guide on the Cheat. "So that's a heck of a lot of water." After the trip launched, says Walbridge, guides knew they were in over their heads. The raft flipped, stranding one guest on a snake-filled rock in the middle of the torrent who was only rescued by a nearby coal mining helicopter, whose Vietnam War pilot made an impressive "one-skid landing" to pick him up. "It was a case of a river flashing from a modest, runnable level to an out-of-control flood stage in just a few hours," he says.