Man dies on Roaring Fork River rafting trip in Aspen
June 16, 2016
Editor's note: The Aspen Times' photographer and videographer Jeremy Wallace captured GoPro footage of the following incident, but The Aspen Times has chosen not to publish any of the footage on AspenTimes.com out of respect for the family.
A 58-year-old man in town for the Food & Wine Classic fell out of a raft Wednesday morning on the Slaughterhouse Falls section of the Roaring Fork River and died, according to authorities and an eyewitness.
The man, who was pronounced dead at the scene just above the Aspen Business Center, was identified late Wednesday as James Abromitis of Maryland.
Aspen Times photographer Jeremy Wallace was shooting a video for the newspaper's website on the same boat Abromitis fell out of.
Wallace said he spoke with Abromitis and his wife before they began rafting and they told him they were in Aspen for two weeks.
"They were telling me they were going to enjoy Food & Wine," he said. "It's really sad."
Besides Wallace, Abromitis and his wife, the Aspen Whitewater Rafting boat also included a younger couple, an older man and the raft guide, Wallace said. The crew also were joined by a kayaker, who was acting as a safety boat, he said.
The crew put-in at Stein Park, located where Cemetery Lane intersects the river, and had only been on the river for about five minutes when things started to go wrong, Wallace said. The river almost immediately becomes very turbulent after the put-in, and sometime after the second large rapid — known as James Bond — the boat became stuck in a large hole, and Abromitis somehow fell out or was knocked out of the raft, he said.
Wallace was sitting in front of Abromitis so he didn't see him fall out. Video shows the guide urging the boaters to paddle hard and get out of the hole before a woman screams and Abromitis floats by.
"I heard the guide yelling, 'Go get him. Go get him,'" Wallace said. "I didn't know what he was talking about, but then I saw him float down the river in front of us."
The raft, which made it out of the hole, and the kayaker caught up to Abromitis, but it was in another "terrible section" of the river, Wallace said.
"Me and another guy were trying to get him back in the boat," Wallace said. "But he was struggling quite a bit … so it was hard to get him out."
Finally, after 20 or 30 seconds, Wallace and the other man were able to pull Abromitis back into the boat, he said. Wallace then looked behind him and saw the raft guide in the water asking to be pulled back in as well. Wallace did not know how the guide ended up in the river, but video of the incident shows the guide was able to get back in the boat quickly.
But within seconds, the boat slammed into a large log and a boulder, high-sided and again dumped Abromitis, along with his wife and the older man into the river, Wallace said. The three were swept downriver and out of sight, he said.
Meanwhile, the raft was wedged on the log and boulder, and Wallace, the young couple and the guide were trying to get it unstuck, he said. That finally occurred and the guide and crew were able to steer the boat to a nearby eddy, Wallace said.
The guide told them to stay put then ran off, he said.
"Our guides responded immediately and pulled the guest from the water and began emergency life saving procedures," Aspen Whitewater Rafting owner Jim Ingram said via a statement released Wednesday afternoon. "Rescue personnel arrived shortly thereafter and took over life saving measures."
Wallace said he sat there for a minute, then heard the older man yelling downstream and went to investigate. The man was 20 to 30 feet downriver, and when Wallace reached him he said he was able to see the kayaker downstream on shore doing CPR on Abromitis.
Wallace said he went to the spot where the kayaker was, and helped pull Abromitis back on to a rock because he was slipping into the water. Abromitis showed no signs of life and the kayaker said he wasn't responding to the CPR.
"I pulled him back on to the rock," Wallace said. "I asked if there was anything I could do and he said, 'No.' So I ran up to the Rio Grande Trail and started running."
He said he found a couple, who loaned him their cellphone, and he was able to call 911. He then ran back and was able to confirm that the other two people who'd been in the water were OK.
"When I got back, the other rafters said they had called off resuscitation," Wallace said.
Wallace said he was told the river was running at 1,600 cubic feet per second.
"The safety of our guests is our company's No. 1 priority, and we've had an outstanding safety record since our inception in 2004. Our guides are some of the most experienced in the state. Besides having thousands of hours of on-the-water training, our guides are also trained in swiftwater rescue, first aid and CPR," Ingram said via the statement. "The man guiding the raft today has 23 years of rafting experience in locations throughout the United States, and the safety kayaker has 15 years of experience both whitewater rafting and kayaking."
Authorities got the call at 11:08 a.m., according to a statement. Aspen Whitewater Rafting's statement said the incident happened around 10:35 a.m. Abromitis' body was transported up to the Rio Grande Trail from the river at about noon.
Abromitis' cause of death will be released following an autopsy, according to a statement from Eric Hansen of the Pitkin County Cororner's Office.