Freak entanglement blamed in rafter's Youghiogheny drowning

| Thursday, July 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A Lancaster man who drowned when he was thrown from a raft into the Youghiogheny River in Fayette County might have survived had his leg not become entangled in a rope, a nationally recognized whitewater safety expert contends.

An autopsy verified that Robert Vega, 22, died of asphyxiation due to drowning, Dr. Phillip Reilly, the Fayette County coroner, said Wednesday.

Reilly said he plans to conduct a coroner's inquest in the fall, but a date has not been set.

Vega was one of six people who were thrown into the lower Youghiogheny River in Ohiopyle State Park on Saturday when their guide-escorted raft capsized near Swimmers Rapids.

All but Vega made it to safety, despite valiant rescue efforts by a number of people, according to witnesses.

Three people who assisted in the rescue attempt reported that one of Vega's legs was tangled in a rope, trapping him in the fast-moving current, said Charlie Walbridge, a swiftwater-rescue instructor, former river guide and board member for the nonprofit American Whitewater organization.

“It's clear that the person got caught in a rope, and that's what caused the death,” said Walbridge on Wednesday. “The thing that caused the death was the rope, not the raft flipping.”

Walbridge, 65, of Bruceton Mills, W.Va., said he spoke with three kayakers who tried to save Vega. He said each reported that one of Vega's legs was caught in a rope that was part of a rescue throw bag. Walbridge said he has no knowledge of how the rope and bag came to be in the area where Vega's raft flipped over.

“I don't know where the rope came from, but all are saying he had a throw bag, and the line was caught on his leg,” Walbridge said. “The danger of a loose rope like that is, inevitably, with the other end, a knot or a kink can get caught between two rocks, and then the person is held in the current.”

Kayakers with an Ohio outdoors group, Columbus Outdoor Pursuits, were having lunch on the riverbank when Vega's raft capsized near Swimmers Rapids, said member John Black.

Black, 58, of Columbus said three men in the group dove into the water to try to save Vega, but they were unaware of the rope entanglement until it was too late. Vega fought to stay above water, surfacing several times before one rescuer found the rope and cut it, Black said.

Vega by then had lost his personal flotation device and appeared to be unconscious as the river swept him downstream, Black said.

Two swiftwater rescue teams, park staff and guides from several whitewater rafting companies in Ohiopyle searched for Vega until 4 p.m. Sunday, when the effort turned from one of rescue to recovery. The following day, a river tour guide spotted Vega's body just below Bottle of Wine Rapids, according to Jim Juran, operations manager for the park.

Walbridge, who has studied whitewater accidents for more than three decades, said swiftwater drowning deaths involving rope entanglement have occurred, but they are uncommon.

Although the river was at 2.9 feet on Saturday, up from its average of 1.5 feet to 2 feet for this time of year, Walbridge said it is hard to say whether the higher water level contributed to the drowning.

“It might have made it easier, it might have made it more difficult. It's hard to tell,” Walbridge said. “The loose rope was a very dangerous situation.”

Walbridge said most rafters who end up in the water at Swimmers Rapids are able to negotiate it safely.

“A lot of people have swum through that rapid,” Walbridge said. “If you have a life jacket, you will float right through, but in this case, he was trailing a rope. He's caught. He's got one leg pulled back, and he's trying to put one leg in front to stay up. It's very unstable and precarious.”

Walbridge said the kayakers reported that as many as 10 people trained in swiftwater rescue tried to save Vega.

They said a number of different methods were used to try to save Vega, including a risky maneuver in which people were lowered to Vega on rescue vests with quick-release harnesses.

“They did the very best they could, and you can go back and Monday-morning quarterback it, but these sorts of entrapments are really difficult at best,” Walbridge said. “It was a very prepared bunch of people doing everything they could.”

Juran on Tuesday said Vega's group of six was escorted by guides in kayaks traveling alongside the rafts. He did not identify the rafting company and could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

There are four companies that offer whitewater rafting trips inside the park under contracts with the state.

Vega was a student at the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned his bachelor's degree in political science and psychology and was to begin law school in the fall.

Since his freshman year, he worked as a student recruiter with the university's Pitt Pathfinders, said Heather Abrams, senior assistant director and adviser to the group.

“He was one of those people who bled blue and gold and loved to share his enthusiasm with all of the incoming family and students,” Abrams said. “He will be greatly missed. He was a fabulous person.”

Liz Zemba is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or

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