A Spokane River rafting trip for a dozen Eastern Washington University students turned out Monday to be something far less than the “white-water experience” they had been promised.
The students in professor Paul Green’s white-water rafting course loaded into two rafts about 500 yards upriver from the Spokane Wastewater Treatment Plant just minutes before a 2-million-gallon sewage digester tank ruptured.
One man was presumed killed and three others were injured when the concrete dome of the tank apparently imploded, sending thousands of gallons of concentrated sewage into the river just as the college students came rafting by.
With the river running at 11,000 cubic feet per minute, the students were hoping for the thrills of the Class IV rapids through the Bowl & Pitcher and Devil’s Toenail in the final outing of their one-credit outdoor recreation course.
Instead, the EWU students found themselves assisting in a river search in the middle of an environmental accident that polluted the water and air.
“We didn’t hear anything, but the smell was just overwhelming _ unbelievable,” Green said Tuesday in describing how the two rafts passed the treatment plant as the sludge poured out of the ruptured 40-foot tank.
“It was a mini-waterfalls, but it sure wasn’t water,” the professor said in describing the outpouring from the damaged tank just above the river shore.
The rafters had to paddle to avoid the sludge and didn’t have towels or clothing for makeshift masks. “Some of the students pinched their noses, it was so bad,” Green said.
One student briefly sought refuge on the wet floor of a raft, but even there couldn’t avoid the nausea-producing stench.
In one raft, EWU junior Rob Patterson, 21, of Yakima, was stunned by what he was witnessing. “It happened before we passed the plant. It looked like a gigantic hole had blown out of this thing.”
The sludge pouring from the damaged tank “looked like one of those mud flows that you see, just pouring into the river,” Patterson said.
“No, it was darker than mud,” interjected fellow rafter Karen Barlow. “It was more like dark chocolate syrup.”
Green, in one raft with six students, and instructor Chris Pelchat, in the second raft with six others, attempted to paddle their 14-foot rafts away from the sewage plume streaming downriver.
As they passed the plant, men wearing hardhats scrambled down to the riverbank, shouting at the rafters.
“They were yelling, ‘Help us, one of our guys is in the river,’ ” Green recalled. “We looked in the river, using scanning techniques we’re taught to use in search and rescue. But we didn’t see anything.”
A trained survival instructor, the EWU professor moved his trailing raft into the lead position and told all the students they would abort their five-mile trip at the Bowl & Pitcher Campground, about a quarter-mile downstream from the plant.
But the “self-bailing rafts” – intended to eliminate water that comes overboard – also allow river water to seep in, sloshing around the feet of the rafters.
The students and the two instructors were wearing life jackets and wet suits. Some of them had wet-suit “booties” they checked out for the river trip. Barlow, a 33-year-old recreation management senior from Spokane, was stuck with two left feet booties for the trip. “Just my luck,” she said with a laugh Tuesday.
Green said it was essential for the rafters to get ashore and not go through the 8- to 10-foot roller waves in the Bowl & Pitcher. “That’s the fun sector, but a trip through there guarantees that you’re going to get wet.”
So, just upstream from those rapids, the rafters headed to shore at a Riverside State Park campground. Some of them, eager to get out of the rafts, stepped in the sewage-polluted water as they waded to the shore, Green said.
When the instructor later looked at the Bowl & Pitcher rapids, “they weren’t white water, they were boiling brown,” he said.
Riverside Park Ranger Mac Mikkelsen said the two camp hosts, who didn’t want to be identified, greeted the rafters with a garden hose to begin the decontamination process.
“We couldn’t believe the water pressure,” Patterson said. The park ranger took the EWU instructor downstream to Plese Flats, where he had parked a van and trailer for the return trip.
After spending about an hour cleaning up and changing into dry clothes, the students drove back to the EWU campus in Cheney. Their five-mile trip turned into a one-mile lifetime memory.
EWU officials will meet today with the dozen students and discuss potential health concerns. Green said he was told by county health officials that there should be no need for hepatitis shots unless the polluted water was ingested.
The EWU rafting instructor said another rafting trip, planned today on the same stretch of river, will instead be relocated on the river between Barker Road and Plantes Ferry Park.
Back home from Monday’s experience, Barlow said she quickly called her parents in Texas; Patterson phoned his mother in Yakima.
“When we were on the river, some people were wondering how sick they were going to get,” Patterson said. “But once we got off, the jokes started about the ‘crappy river trip.’ ”
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