The Scouts of Troop 114G in Littleton, Colorado, were on an epic whitewater rafting adventure on the Arkansas River when disaster struck. A short distance ahead of them, a raft collided with a rock, dumping its passengers into the churning water.
The area is called Toilet Bowl, and you can probably imagine why. The swirling rapids — combined with near-freezing water temperatures — are not to be taken lightly.
By the time the adults and youth of Troop 114G reached the spot of the incident, some of the rafters were still desperately struggling to keep their heads above the water.
Under the direction of their trained, experienced whitewater guide, the Scouts and Scouters took a series of actions that likely saved the men’s lives.
Here is their story, in their own words.
Shoshana Surek-Nash, Scoutmaster
The water was very cold. The rapids were Class III and IV. Before every rapid, the Scouts practiced techniques, synched their paddling and were prepared for fun and adventure. As we approached a rapid named Toilet Bowl, our guide said, “This is one of my favorites, but you don’t want to fall out in this one.”
Scotty Nash, committee chair
Our raft had four Scouts, two adult leaders and a guide on it. Because we had the most experienced guide with us, we were assigned the “sweeper” role, to ensure that everyone in front of us made it safely down the river and no one was left behind. As we approached Toilet Bowl, the raft in front of us flipped, scattering all of its occupants and leaving only one of their guides on top of the now capsized raft.
The scene was shocking. Gear was everywhere, and all we could see were the tops of people’s heads swirling about. Our guide was in high gear, instantly yelling commands so that not only we didn’t run into their raft and flip, but also so that we could help.
Simone Nash, 13
I saw the raft hit the rock and flip over. People went flying and went under the water. Some people came out from under the raft and started going underwater in the circular rapid.
Jessica Forinash, 14
Our guide told us to grab anybody we could out of the water and pull them into our raft.
The man who was under the other raft swirled past and grabbed our outside line. Immediately, water sucked him below our raft, and our guide instructed Simone to grab him by the shoulder straps, and for Jessica to wedge her paddle. He instructed another Scout, Z Nash, to paddle forward hard, and another Scout, Sam Cushman, to paddle hard, and for Scotty to try to rescue a man who had gone under near the front of the raft.
I quickly reached out to one of the victims, grabbing his PFD vest at the shoulders. Much of his weight was still below the top of the boat, and even underneath the boat, and I couldn’t pull him up without falling in myself. I held onto him as we floated past a large boulder. I remember pulling with all of my strength and just barely keeping his face at water level as we curved around the rock.
As we spun, I was directed to reach my paddle to a woman who couldn’t keep her head above water. We were inches from her, and she kept getting pulled into the circular area below the boulder. Every time she came up, she screamed for help, and I reached as far as I could, as did she, but we became stuck on a rock as our boat swung around and she was pulled to the other side of the boulder. She was so scared, but she ended up working her way out. Scotty had a hold of the guy he was instructed to hold, but the raft became wedged when it turned, pinning the man between the raft and the rock. We could see his face — eyes and mouth open — under the water.
During this time, Z and Sam were given the very important job of keeping the boat headed in the right direction without flipping.
Another guy was calling for help and our guide was telling me to help him. When he came to us, he went under the boat. I reached my hand, but I wasn’t strong enough to pull him out that way. Then I grabbed his life vest. I had my foot stuck tight in the raft and just pulled back as hard as I could.
I noticed Simone was trying to pull someone in, so I reached over and helped pull the person out of the water.
Once he was in the boat, he was spitting out water and coughing. I didn’t want him to sit up because the raft could flip, but he was able to turn so he didn’t choke on the water.
Once he was in, Z secured him at the front. Sam and I pushed off the rock.
Once we rounded the rock, the water calmed, and the leverage was better. I was able to pull the other man onto the boat. Shoshana grabbed his PFD straps and pulled him over and on top of her lap.
We were now in the rapids fully. Our guide yelled at us to paddle and secure ourselves, so we wouldn’t become the next victims of the rapid. Rather than shutting down or stressing out, the Scouts were working as a team who had done this before – which they hadn’t. They maintained their three points of contact — the safety rules they all knew from Safe Swim Defense and Safety Afloat — knowing that the key is to remain calm, assess the scene, stay safe and help others bravely. They did just that.
Once the immediate danger had passed, it was necessary to adjust and continue down river safely. One of the men appeared to be in good spirits. The other was not as well. He appeared to be in shock with some scratches and scrapes on his face and lips from the boulder. Our guide made a request to continue paddling to a safe spot on the edge of the water. I spoke with him later, and he was in much better shape; he was happy and talkative.
Later, Z said Wilderness First Aid was a key helper in quickly assessing conditions in the boat. Both Scotty and myself are happy we had cold-water immersion training. Our guide said it would not have gone as well as it went without a raft full of Scouts. As Scoutmaster, I was proud of their ability to work together and to listen to the incident commander (as it were). The strength of the two young Scouts who pulled a 6-foot-man from the river while spinning in the rapids, and the teamwork after Scotty and I pulled out the other gentleman, to assess his condition and offer him support, while still paddling and keeping our raft from flipping … it could have gone much different.
Victim No. 1
I tried to climb into the raft, but it was the Scouts’ efforts that got me on board. I don’t recall ever being so grateful for the help of strangers. It was a scary moment, and I’m thankful for the Scouts’ readiness to follow their training when I needed to be fished out of the Toilet Bowl.
Victim No. 2
As I laid face down, shaking and catching my breath in the bottom of their raft, taking in what had just happened, I realized I had seen four young women of about 12 years or so come together as a team to save our lives. Their bravery, teamwork and quick action saved us from what could have been bad injuries, or even death. When I was able to compose myself, I relaxed, knowing that we would be guided to safety by these four exemplary Scouts of America. I am eternally grateful for the heroism of these budding leaders of America.
Simone Nash, Scotty Nash and Jessica Forinash each received the BSA Honor Medal for their actions. Sam Cushman, Z Nash and Shoshana Nash each received the Medal of Merit.