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Mon, March 25

Trapped! September 11 Canyon trip becomes an eerie reminder of terror <BR>

Fast forward to 2003. Galpin and 40 other women — including five from New York — planned another September outing. Except this time it was an 86-mile rafting trip through the upper half of the Grand Canyon, one that extended from Lee's Ferry to Phantom Ranch.

The energetic group launched three 37-foot motorboats into the relatively calm waters of the Colorado River on Sept. 9, expecting to conclude its trip three days later at the ranch. From there, the women would end their excursion with a hike from the base of the canyon to its rim.

But two days into one boat's ride, 17 members of the group — 15 women and a pair of boat operators — didn't escape the clutches of the eeriness and irony that envelops Sept. 11. Of the three engine-powered boats that participated in the trip, Galpin's boat ran into trouble.

Although no one was killed or injured, Galpin's boat lost power and got stuck in Rapid Unkar, one of the river's raging currents. With the boat lodged into rocks and foundering in the current, the group ultimately had to use its satellite phone to notify a Grand Canyon National Park search and rescue team.

"On the 11th, after lunch, we went through rapids," Galpin said. "One boat lost its engine and began bouncing around. None of us really knew what would happen. I thought we'd flip over being stuck in the rocks."

Galpin's fears were legitimate, and she particularly remembers the thickness and muddiness of the river's waters. Whether that was a contributing factor to the boat's engine failure, perhaps no one will ever know.

Grand Canyon National Park dispatch got the emergency call via satellite phone from Wilderness River Adventures, an outfit from Page that was hired to operate the trip.

A boatman reported that the group had pinned its 37-foot motorboat on a rock at Unkar Rapid, which is on river mile 72.5 of the Colorado River. At about 2 p.m. the motorized raft experienced engine failure upon entering the rapid. It traveled to the left side and became lodged on rocks near the base of the rapid.

For the next three hours, the boatman and crews from the two other Wilderness River Adventures' boats tried to free the 17 people aboard.

Three hours later, when the self-rescue attempts failed, one of the boatmen asked for help from the park.

With less than two hours of daylight left, the park's rescue personnel flew to the scene in the park's twin-engine MD-900 helicopter.

Two rangers, Ken Phillips and Marc Yeston, dropped aboard the boat using a rope attached to the helicopter.

"It was a very stable situation," Phillips said. "No one was hurt, so we could take our time. The passengers on board made the best of a difficult situation. They were all extremely calm."

Galpin agreed, but had a slightly different take.

"It was an extremely dangerous rescue next to the canyon wall," Galpin said. "It could've been potentially very serious."

Phillips and Yeston evacuated six passengers before dusk. But park officials had to suspend air operations at nightfall for safety reasons.

Phillips said the worst thing that could have happened was for the raft to flip, even though he doesn't believe that was a possibility. Forty feet from shore, Phillips and Yeston didn't want to risk the alternative — roping people to dry land using a tension diagonal.

"It got too dark, and they had to leave," Galpin said. "A long rope swung us out from the river."

Both rangers and two boat guides stayed on the boat with the nine remaining passengers, including Galpin, through a restless night.

"Everybody was fine," Galpin said, complimenting the professionalism of Wilderness River Adventures and its guides' handling of the boat. "I was impressed we didn't knock anything in the water. The rangers kept people calm."

At about 9 the next morning, the rangers hauled the remaining passengers to safety — two by two. Twelve of the trip's members chose to cut their excursion short. They flew by helicopter to the canyon's south rim and eventually went home.

"I was pretty scared, especially being harnessed into a helicopter 300 to 400 feet above the river," Galpin said.

The remaining 29 finished their trip with two boats, 14 passengers on one and 15 on the other. At 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 12, they arrived at Phantom Ranch and began their ascent out of the canyon at 6 on Bright Angel Trail.

"It took us a couple hours to get to Phantom Ranch," Galpin said. "We (hiked out of there) by sheer will and determination. Everyone wanted to get home."

At that point, the rescuers and boat crew stayed on the raft to help with efforts to free it. But repeated attempts throughout the day of Sept. 12 were unsuccessful.

"After we were rescued, we waited most of the afternoon, hoping the boat would break free and we would be able to finish," Galpin said.

A "Z rig" managed to move the boat from its initial point of entrapment to a location 10 feet downstream, rotating the boat 180 degrees.

With the crew saved, park rescuers returned to Unkar Rapid the morning of Sept. 13 to free the boat.

Finally, after hours of intense labor, the boat's crew used engine power to move it. The boat then continued down the river without further incident.

"The safest thing to do is to stay put," said Phillips, a paramedic. "After the helicopters removed the passengers, they had many pounds of equipment taken off, which freed up the boat."

When asked if she would risk another trip down the Colorado River in the future, Galpin had no qualms.

"All of us on the trip felt the boat company was incredible," said Galpin. "I will do it again. I'd do it with the same company. They did a fantastic job. Everything worked smoothly. If we had to be in a difficult situation, I'm glad we were here."

Some factual information in story provided by incident report of K.J. Glover, incident commander.


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