Witness: Teague made heroic attempt to aid unconscious friend at Ruedi
John Teague made a heroic attempt to rescue an unconscious friend from Ruedi Reservoir on Saturday but got exhausted by the effort and wasn’t able to get himself back to safety, according to a woman who was on the boat.
Kate Campise, a longtime friend of Teague’s, was out on Ruedi with him throughout Saturday. They connected with James “Bret” Varra, another friend of Teague’s, and tied the boats together. Varra was horsing around with Teague and pushed him in the water, then jumped in himself, according to Campise. She also jumped in.
She said she was swimming back to Teague’s boat when she realized something was wrong with Varra.
“He just didn’t look right,” she said Tuesday in a phone interview. “He looked like he was unconscious, floating in the water.”
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Teague had just gotten back on the boat when he also realized something was wrong with Varra and jumped back in. She said Teague was an extremely strong swimmer. He reached Varra, hooked him under an arm and was swimming back to the boats, Campise said. Varra remained either unconscious or unresponsive. She stressed that he wasn’t flailing in the water.
“Bret wasn’t struggling. He wasn’t bringing John down,” Campise said.
She believes Teague got exhausted from the effort of towing a big man and from being in the cold water. He wasn’t able to hold onto Varra and refocused on getting back to the boats. Campise said it was cloudy and windy at the time of the incident and being in the water for a long time probably sapped Teague’s strength.
In the chaotic moments that followed, Teague gave Campise instructions on how to start the boat so she could bring the craft closer to him. She said she also recalled searching for a floatation device to throw to him and yelling to other boaters for help. A boat from the Aspen Yacht Club arrived a short time later but neither Varra nor Teague could be located.
Ralph Gunning of El Jebel was driving the boat that arrived first to offer help. He said he searched for the men in vain 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.
Autopsies will be performed today to determine the cause and manner of death of the men, Eagle County Coroner Kara Bettis said Tuesday.
Teague, 46, was a Roaring Fork Valley native. He grew up in Aspen and lived in Carbondale. Varra, 59, grew up in Carbondale.
Teague’s family released this statement Tuesday through Campise: “The family would like to say how appreciate they are for all the hard work of first responders, support of family and friends, and how much it truly means to them. John was their rock and the backbone of their family.”
A memorial service for Teague will be held Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at St. Mary’s of the Crown Catholic Church in Carbondale. Refreshments will follow. A service for Varra has not been announced yet.
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Local law enforcement spoke this week with the organizer of two demonstrations against racism this weekend in Aspen following the death of George Floyd to ensure they will be safe.