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QUESTIONS IN DROWNING – TEEN WASN’T WEARING SAFETY GEAR AT PUEBLO WHITEWATER PARK

Rocky Mountain News (CO) – Wednesday, June 22, 2005
Author/Byline: Felix Doligosa Jr., Rocky Mountain News Staff writer Clayton Woullard contributed to this report
Edition: Final
Section: News
Page: 6A
Divers took turns braving fierce Arkansas River rapids and rain Tuesday in Pueblo, looking for the body of a 14-year-old boy presumed drowned in the city’s new whitewater park.

Officials also responded to emergency calls regarding five other people in trouble in the water just north of the site of Monday evening’s incident. All five were rescued.

Authorities said that Andrew McDaniel drowned Monday after an air mattress that he and his brother, Ben McDaniel, 12, and friend Christian Milberger, 9, were riding was punctured on the city’s new kayak course.

The mattress failed after hitting several rocks on the section of course called the Grim Reaper, because of its intense waters.

Ben McDaniel and Milberger were rescued by kayakers and had no major injuries.

The Pueblo Whitewater Park is a half-mile course on the Arkansas River.

The park is divided by eight man-made drops in the city’s downtown area.

Opened last month, the course has several eddies and goes as deep as 10 feet in certain locations, with rocks just as high.

The Pueblo Dam powers the water park’s flow, which also sends water to farms east of the city.

The park is supervised by the city.

Lifeguards don’t monitor the water course, but fire officials check the stream periodically.

“There are warnings everywhere on the course that say enter at your own risk,” said Pueblo Assistant Fire Chief John Zupancic.

“The city requires one to wear a life jacket.”

The boys weren’t wearing life vests or helmets, but many children try to ride the water park without the proper safety gear, Zupancic said.

Mike Hammond, a Pueblo firefighter and avid kayaker, defended the safety of the water park. He swims the dark water’s currents in a swimsuit, life jacket and a helmet.

“It’s built to be safe – it will flush you out,” he said. “It is intense. You’ll be in trouble if don’t have the proper gear.”

Hammond was one of the people who rescued the two boys Monday night. Hammond and his 18-year-old stepson, Ryan Clevenger, were riding a kayak and a Boogie Board about 4 p.m.

The two saw another kayaker, Bill McCandless, whistle and point two fingers in the air, indicating two drowning boys. The boys’ mattress had deflated on the rocks.

“This stuff isn’t for beginner kayakers,” Hammond said. “It will flip you.”

Hammond dragged Milberger to shore, and McCandless helped Ben McDaniel stay afloat. Clevenger went down the bank of the water park to search for the other boy.

Authorities searched the river late into the night Monday and all day Tuesday until sundown.

Greg Horton, vice president of the Pikes Peak Whitewater Club, said he is concerned that the new course is being called a park because people may get the wrong idea about its safety.

“It’s a park to us (kayakers), but to someone who’s not an experienced kayaker, it’s dangerous,” said Horton, 44, who said he has been to Whitewater Park about 15 times since it opened in April.

Colorado’s rivers have swollen in the past few months because of the hot weather and the increased snowmelt.

Horton, who considers himself an experienced intermediate kayaker, said that he and other kayakers haven’t seen water this high for years because of the drought, and that people have become lax when it comes to water safety.

“When the river is really cranking . . . the forces involved are crazy,” he said. “It’s substantial, and people just underrate it.”

Colorado’s swollen rivers have claimed the lives of six people in the past month, including a man wading in Clear Creek and an experienced kayaker near Boulder.

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