Bad Day on the River
There was a bad day on the river last week. The family and I were canoeing along the Buffalo River in Arkansas on vacation with a larger group. A park ranger rushed up to borrow one of the canoes, stating there was a “lost party” down stream. Heading down stream ourselves, and the understated description of “lost party”, we lent the canoe, not thinking much of it.
My family, in two canoes, was dragging behind the group, having a generally good time. I saw Jason (from the larger group), and another fellow, dragging a canoe upstream–it took a moment to process that there was a body in the bottom of the canoe next to a girl performing CPR. I paddled to the bank, pulling the canoe ashore, hopped out and attempted to catch Jason and help pull the canoe. The river stones forced me to go back for my sneakers, and run to catch up. By the time I got there, the other fellow helping Jason was wasted.
I pushed, Jason pulled. Very quickly, every step became a lung bursting effort. My sneakers filled with river gravel. I tried to encourage the girl, and keep her on task. She had a gruesome task–trying to keep that kid alive in the bottom of the canoe, as we drug it upstream. He appeared to by about 18. The ranger had yelled that there was an ambulance waiting at the only real landing area upstream.
The whole time, my brain screamed for another, better, faster way to do this. But there really wasn’t and keep the CPR going. The bluffs on either side of the river went straight up, and where there were no bluffs, the woods yielded no indication of roads or trails.
It seemed an interminable time. I could feel the burn in my thighs from my hill runs that morning. I damned having ran that morning. My lungs burned. Jason wasn’t in better shape. The girl was freaking out. “Don’t pound on his chest.” “OK, now give him some breaths.” “Keeping going, you’re doing good.” His chest was flacid. The kid did not look good.
We finally got him to the shore, and the damned medics seemed to take their sweet time. They wanted the canoe up a little, a better landing area. We drug it up some. I cursed and berated them.
They strapped the boy to a board, put the squeeze bag over his face, loaded him into the back of park pickup. One medic resumed CPR, and the truck drove off. People from the boy’s party were just now catching up. They were sobbing. The girl was done. She talked to the rangers.
Jason and I were dazed. We caught our breath. The initial park ranger came up and gave us more details. The kid went under with a cramp in his leg. His group admirably searched for him for 15 minutes underwater, and found him just as she came upon them. The main portion of our party arrived just as they were pulling him up. The kid’s group was at just the next swimming hole down from where we first were. One of the other women with us, a nurse, administered the initial CPR. She later reported things did not look good then.
My family came upon the canoe moments later.
I didn’t get to talk to anyone in the boy’s party. I wouldn’t have known what to say.
The next evening we found out the kid died. His name was Justin Eugene Clark, 21 years old, from Augusta, Arkansas. Justin was under water just too long. It was a horrible thing.
I’m not sure what lessons there are here. I regret having run that morning. But then, if I weren’t in fit shape, I couldn’t have done that drag. That was just damn hard.
Justin’s party just didn’t have anyone capable of completely addressing a situation like that. More fitter swimmers/divers. The girl did the best she could with the CPR, but it was too much emotionally. Then again, it may not have made a difference–he was under too long.
I didn’t see anyone that could have made that drag. And even if they could, Jason knew the sand bars & deep water, without which the drag would have been nearly impossible.
They were in the next swimming hole. If we had moved on earlier, we may have been able to help. Then again, if we were downstream from them, we wouldn’t have even known it had happened.
There were other parties on the river that day. I’m sure some could have helped. I’m not sure why they didn’t.
- Do you know CPR well enough to perform under these conditions?
- Are you fit enough to help in something like this?
- Are you a strong enough swimmer to keep cool if something goes wrong with you, or help with others?
- Would you have helped that day, or stood by feeling helpless?
I’m glad we came upon the incident, as tragic as it was, because otherwise Justin stood no chance. By aiding we at least gave him a chance. I haven’t spoken with his family, but I would want them to know that their boy did not die while strangers stood by. Strangers on the river that day did all they could to help their boy.
Links to stories & reports. You’ll find that they miss many of the details I’ve discussed: