Men who drowned at Ruedi Reservoir identified as valley locals John Teague and Bret Varra
The men who died Saturday at Ruedi Reservoir were friends who had their boats tied together when one struggled in the water and the other jumped in to help him.
Eagle County Coroner Kara Bettis identified the victims Sunday night as John Teague, 46, who died after jumping into the water to help James “Bret” Varra, 59, who was having difficulty in the water, according to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. Both men lived in Carbondale.
Bettis said no other information would be released until the autopsies are finished. She said those should be completed this week.
Teague grew up in Aspen and went to Aspen High School, according to his Facebook page, and Varra grew up in Carbondale.
Support Local Journalism
“All indications are that this is a tragic accident,” Alex Burchetta, Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office patrol director, said Sunday morning. Burchetta was on scene for four hours at the reservoir Saturday.
According to the Sheriff’s Office, two boats were tied together away from the shore when Varra went swimming and encountered an unknown problem.
Kate Campise, a longtime friend of Teague’s, said she was on Teague’s boat when she realized something was wrong with Varra.
“He just didn’t look right,” she said. “He looked like he was unconscious, floating in the water.”
Teague was an extremely strong swimmer, Campise said. Teague was able to reach Varra and was swimming back with him under his arm, she said.
“Brett wasn’t struggling. He wasn’t bringing John down,” Campise said.
But Teague became exhausted bringing Varra back in the cold water and couldn’t hold him. He gave Campise instructions on how to start the boat while he continued swimming back to the craft. She started the boat to bring it closer but it was a chaotic scene with the boats tied together. She also searched for a floatation device and yelled for help to other boaters. A boat from the Aspen Yacht Club arrived a short time later but they were unable to locate Teague.
“Both men were not seen again,” the sheriff’s office statement said.
Ralph Gunning of El Jebel had just left the Aspen Yacht Club with friends and was driving the boat that was on the scene after both men were in the water and a woman on the boats, which were tied together, was screaming for help.
“I said, ‘That didn’t sound like a happy scream,’” Gunning recalled Sunday afternoon in a phone interview. “That’s when we saw two boats tied together across from the Yacht Club cove.”
He said one of the engines was running and the boats were spinning as the panicked woman was searching for the men.
“I saw something in the water. I thought it was a dog. All I saw was brown hair. Had I known it was a human, I would have got in water sooner,” Gunning said. “She told us two people were in water. I dove in and searched for about a half-hour. Then I got back in the boat and we did passes with a fish-finder and I would dive back in when we saw something.”
He said he searched for about 45 minutes, then took the GPS coordinates and went back to the yacht club dock to pick up law enforcement officials and took them back out.
A rescue/dive team from the Summit County Sheriff’s Office was called in and found the bodies about 20 to 30 feet below the surface and got them to shore about 12:15 a.m. Sunday morning after three hours of searching.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on July 24 with accounts from the woman who was on the boat during the incident.
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User
Wayne Hall took a job as an air traffic controller at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport in 2003 thinking he would stay for a short time. Instead he stayed for nearly 17 years and was promoted up to the position of air traffic manager. He reflected on the experience upon retirement.