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Survivors still trying to make sense of whitewater tragedy

Tony Oertling was trying to launch his kayak in Marble Creek when Steve Jeffries delivered a raunchy punch line that buckled the professor’s knees.

“That’s a good one,” Oertling said, down on the ground, holding his belly in laughter.

About four hours later and 12 miles downstream, the well-liked 55-year-old Chemistry Department chairman at Eastern Washington University died in a torrent of whitewater.

The sudden contrast of laughter and tragedy haunts Jeffries nearly two weeks after that day on the St. Joe River tributary.

“I’ve been in the mountains and on rivers and had a gut feeling that something was going to go wrong,” Jeffries said. “But nothing like that occurred to me on this trip.

“We saw a harlequin duck, a beautiful thing. The sun was shining. It was 80 degrees and we had the river to ourselves.

“We were right where we wanted to be, with friends we wanted to be with.”

The group had a protocol after 15 years of paddling together. Jeffries would lead in his 11-foot cataraft. The three kayakers – Oertling, Matt Chase and John Patrouch – followed while Brook Ellingwood would sweep in a 12-foot cat.

With around 125 years of river-running experience among them, outfitted in proper gear, they headed into a 14-mile carnival ride they’d all been down before.

The St. Joe was running at 10,200 cfs, but no gauge monitors Marble Creek. The stream was a freight train of whitewater and they were eager to get aboard.

“Some of it was Class 4-plus,” Jeffries said. “It kicked our butts in places. But we were all comfortable with it. We loved it.”

More than halfway downriver, the group pulled out to stretch. “We were right above a rapid some people call Three Mile. It’s about that far up from the take-out,” Patrouch said. “Everybody had done real well on the Class 4 stuff. The next stretch normally is a fun part of the run.”

However, the river soon began ripping the group apart.

“It was a fire hose,” Jeffries said. “Real boney (rocky) with no eddies.

“Matt gave me a quick look of urgency. I looked farther upstream and saw John doing what we call a death swim.”

Patrouch had flipped. Banging his head on rocks, he took the last resort and exited the kayak. With help from Jeffries and Chase, he finally clutched shore in a micro-eddy.

“Beat up is the term that comes to mind,” Patrouch recalled.

Chase and Jeffries then sprinted after Patrouch’s kayak, which was rocketing downstream.

“Brook was running sweep, but Tony pulled over near a log,” Jeffries said. “There was no eddy, so Brook went by, checking on Tony. Tony said he was OK.”

Ellingwood reached Patrouch shortly downstream and made sure he was OK, too.

Still with no place to eddy out, Ellingwood continued downstream, where Chase and Jeffries were finding more difficult water.

“Matt tipped his kayak, got his roll, dropped over a pour-over and cart-wheeled,” Jeffries said. “He gets another roll and is knocked over again, and he gets his third roll. Meanwhile, I’m in an 11-foot cat just trying to keep everything together.”

They went about 1.5 miles downstream before they corralled the kayak in an eddy.

“Brook joined us. We had only a mile to the take-out, so we decided to get down to a car and drive back and get John and Tony. At that point, we assumed Tony had pulled out to walk out with John.”

But Patrouch says he didn’t see Oertling or know where he was until he’d scrambled up from the river and walked about a half mile down the road.

“I got a glimpse of him in the river,” he recalled telling Jeffries when they met on he road. “I thought he was swimming, but I could be wrong.”

Jeffries relaunched his cat where Oertling was last spotted.

“We gave serious thought to having Steve go back on the river,” Patrouch said. “But we had to find Tony before dark.”

Jeffries suffered a physical and mental ordeal over the next two hours as he found Oertling’s body another 1.5 miles downstream. He brought his friend out in darkness.

“We got home around 2 a.m. and went to comfort Tony’s wife,” he said. “It turned out Mary was the one comforting us. That’s the type of people they are. That’s why this is so hard.

“That’s why we’re still trying to make sense of it.”

The survivors have hashed and rehashed the events, but each time they look at each other and say, “Why?” 

“There was no big thing, no semi turning into our lane,” Jeffries said.

“I think Tony took a long, nasty swim in water he’d paddled before and something happened to incapacitate him.

“Maybe he got bumped in the head, although there was no obvious trauma even to his helmet. Maybe he was over and couldn’t get his breaths.”

Jeffries said this story could be written in three terse sentences:

“A team of strong boaters went to a familiar river. The water was serious. A tragedy occurred.”

They plan on continuing with their passion for whitewater rivers, but Jeffries said the trips will never be the same.

“We don’t go much for that saying, ‘He died doing what he loved to do,’ ” Jeffries said. “That doesn’t make our professor any less dead.”

Contact Rich Landers by voice mail at 459-5577, extension 5508, or e-mail to