Rescue attempts weren't enough to save Pitt student who fell into Youghiogheny

| Wednesday, July 10, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Three members of an Ohio outdoors club were among rescuers who tried desperately to save a 22-year-old man as he fought for his life in the fast-moving waters of the Youghiogheny River on Saturday, according to a Columbus man who witnessed the rescue effort.

“One of my friends who was sitting right near me ran over to the rocks, dived in the water and swam over to the other side, where Mr. (Robert) Vega was trapped,” said John Black, 58, on Tuesday. “He was the first person to get there, and had it been a conventional foot entrapment, I think my friend would have saved him.”

Vega and five others were tossed into Swimmers Rapids in the lower Youghiogheny when their raft capsized during a guide-escorted tour about 12:30 p.m. Saturday, said Jim Juran, operations manager for Ohiopyle State Park.

All but Vega made it to safety.

Vega's body was recovered at 7 p.m. Monday just below Bottle of Wine rapids on the river, Juran said. An autopsy was performed Tuesday in Pittsburgh but results were not yet available, according to the Fayette County Coroner's office.

During the three-day search, Vega's family kept vigil at the park.

“We were praying to find him and finally we did,” said his aunt, Jessica Rojas. “Now we're just going to take him home.”

Black said his group was having lunch on the riverbank when several of them saw Vega struggling in the water. Three members who are trained in swiftwater rescue dove into the water to assist with a rescue.

“My friend couldn't free him, and the second guy couldn't free him,” Black said. “The third guy got there and realized it wasn't a foot entrapment with rocks, that he had a rope wrapped around his knee and ankle.”

The third rescuer cut the rope, but Vega apparently had gone unconscious by then, Black said. Vega lost his personal flotation device as he struggled to stay above water during the rescue attempt, Black said, and he floated downstream.

Black said the rope was from a throw bag, a device used in water rescues.

Black said Vega would have had a difficult time staying above water with the rope wrapped around his leg and water rushing against him. “If you have that kind of pressure on your body, you can't free yourself,” Black said.

Juran would not comment on whether a throw bag was used during the attempted rescue, citing an ongoing investigation.

Dr. Philip Reilly, the county coroner, could not be reached Tuesday.

Juran said Vega's group of six was on an escorted trip, with guides in kayaks traveling alongside the rafts.

Black, who said he has taken several whitewater-rafting safety courses, questioned the practice of allowing inexperienced rafters to negotiate the rapids without a guide in their raft.

“As somebody who has been on numerous raft trips, I have always been thankful to have a guide in the boat, with their paddle in the water,” Black said. “I don't see how anybody can guide from another raft.”

The four whitewater rafting outfits at Ohiopyle have contracts with the state to provide the service, said Terry Brady, spokesman with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The contracts require them to hire experienced boaters trained in water rescue, first aid and CPR.

“They have to know that river,” Brady said. “They have to have so many qualifying trips.”

Vega was to begin law school in the fall at the University of Pittsburgh. He received a bachelor's degree in psychology and political science in April, said John Fedele, university spokesman.

He graduated in 2009 from McCaskey High School, where he excelled academically, said his guidance counselor, Davin Orlowski. Vega returned each year to talk to students who were interested in going to college.

“I have high regards for this young man,” Orlowski said. “He was definitely a good representative of a young man who has made smart decisions and smart choices in his life. He will definitely be missed.”

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

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