Eagle River raft trip death called ‘rare instance’
DOWD JUNCTION, Colo. – An Alabama man died while rafting the Eagle River with his wife through Dowd Chute on Wednesday.
Patrick Bush, 66, of Birmingham, was on a Lakota Guides rafting trip with his wife, two other rafting customers and one raft guide when he was ejected from the raft late Wednesday morning. The raft did not flip over and the four other rafters remained safe in the raft.
This is the first fatality Lakota Guides has had on a rafting trip in the company’s 25-year history, said owner John Seelig.
“This is such a rare instance,” Seelig said Wednesday at the scene of the accident. “In this business, things happen that we do not plan.”
The Bushes and the other rafters had already gone through the Dowd Junction chute once Wednesday. They headed back toward Minturn in the Lakota Guides van with their guide, Bill Hoblitzell, to put the raft in the water near Meadow Mountain for a second run.
Megan Smith was the safety kayaker with the trip. Safety kayaks follow rafts and usually wait in certain locations where the river tends to be more dangerous or challenging. Smith was ahead of the raft, waiting just below a big drop through the river, when Bush was ejected from the raft just above the drop.
Smith got to him within a few seconds, but he was already lifeless and didn’t appear to be breathing, she said.
She pulled him up by his life jacket to get his head out of the water, and tried to pull him as far onto her kayak as she could without flipping over.
“I did everything I could possibly do,” Smith said. “He was not moving. He was lifeless. I was yelling at him but there was no response.”
Smith said it was less than a minute from the time Bush fell into the river until she was able to pull him onto shore.
She saw him hit several rocks in the river. The cause of death is still under investigation pending an autopsy, according to a sheriff’s office statement released Wednesday afternoon.
Bush’s wife was at the scene with responders from the Eagle County Ambulance District, Eagle River Fire Protection District, Vail Mountain Rescue Group and the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office. She walked over to where rescuers had placed her husband’s body and touched him before walking back to where rescuers had been consoling her.
Water levels have come way down from earlier this month, when above average temperatures caused a rapid snowmelt that caused some flooding throughout the valley.
An Aspen man died while rafting through Dowd Chute on June 5, when the river was a lot higher and the water velocity was dangerously fast.
Seelig said the water is so low now that Lakota Guides was going to stop running that part of the river after the upcoming weekend. Rafters and kayaker can still run the river now, he said, but it just isn’t as much fun as it had been in recent weeks.
Seelig was upset Wednesday, but he said he felt like his guides did everything they’ve been trained to do.
“We feel like we were as safe as possible in the situation,” Seelig said. “Bill [Hoblitzell] has been a guide for 11 years. He’s definitely one of those people who knows how to handle situations.”
Seelig said he requires all of his raft guides to be Swift Water Rescue certified – a higher level of training than required by the state of Colorado. He said Lakota Guides takes safety very seriously.
“This is similar to the ski industry in that you have things that can happen,” Seelig said.
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