The Drowning Pools

updated 10/04/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/04/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

MARK BREWER STARED INTO THE ICY waters of Kolob Creek, watching helplessly as his best friend began to drown. Behind him five teenage boys, all entrusted to Brewer's care for a four-day hike concluding in Utah's Zion National Park, waited, shivering and terrified. Less than an hour earlier, they had seen another of their leaders, Kim Ellis, 37, fall to his death in a churning pool. Now Brewer, 35, had a had fragment of an instant, no time at all, in which to make the decision of a life-time: plunge in to save 27-year-old David Fleischer, risking almost certain death himself, or try to get the boys out of Kolob Creek alive. "If I went in there, I wouldn't make it," says Mark Brewer of the moment he watched his friend disappear under a waterfall. "I knew what I had to do. My primary responsibility was to the boys.

But with two members of their party dead less than 90 minutes after entering the canyon, Brewer and the boys—Shayne Ellis, 14, Chris Stevens, 15, Mike Perkins, 17, Josh Nay, 16, and Rick Larson, 16, all neighbors and close friends from a Mormon youth group in South Salt Lake City—were facing a grim situation. Sheer sandstone and limestone cliffs stretched up 180 feet above them; ahead of them a series of thundering waterfalls, caused by the unexpected release of water from a dam, cut off any line of retreat from the spectacularly narrow gorge. The hikers were not due back until the following Saturday night, so it would be at least three days before their families reported them missing.

The trip was going to be the highlight of the summer. They planned to do a series of rappels—descents made by sliding down ropes hanging over cliffs—down through the canyon, then hike, wade and float through the shallow, placid stream that runs through the gorge. For eight months the three adults and five teenagers had honed their rappeling skills. "Everyone was just so excited," says Mike Perkins. "It seemed like a great adventure." On Wednesday, July 14, they stopped in at the Zion National Park visitor center to pick up their back-country permit and make one final check of the hiking conditions. The ranger gave them an enthusiastic send-off, according to Perkins, telling the group, "You'll have the time of your lives."

Early on the morning of Thursday, July 15, carrying backpacks loaded with food, sleeping bags and ropes, the friends set out. They trekked for three hours to the rim of the gorge and donned wetsuits to begin rappeling into the canyon. Clinging to a half-inch-thick rope, one by one they dropped 85 feet down a smooth sandstone wall onto the canyon floor. They hiked 10 yards, where the canyon then narrowed down into a chasm only six or seven feet wide. But something was terribly wrong: Instead of a placid stream, they saw-before them a raging torrent rushing down over rocks and ledges, creating merciless waterfalls and whirlpools.

Unknown to the hikers, runoff from the Kolob Reservoir three miles upstream was being released into the creek, following an unusually wet winter and spring. Ron Thompson of the Washington County Water Conservancy District claims his agency notified Zion officials, but park spokesman Denny Davies says they never received the message. "If [the rangers] had said not to go in," says Brewer, "we wouldn't have."

Almost as soon as they hit the ground after that first rappel, "we knew we had a big problem," says Brewer, an experienced out-doorsman and father of four who runs an advertising agency in Salt Lake City. "Normally what you do is jump in and hold onto your packs, which are sealed so they float like life preservers." Fleischer, a patternmaker for fiberglass molds who had hiked Kolob Creek once before, said to Brewer, "Hey, this is pretty tough. The water is way higher than it ever should be.'' With no possibility of going back up the sheer cliffs, they could only proceed on their planned route downstream.

After 20 minutes they reached a waterfall cascading into a deep pool eight feet below. With no other way to continue, Fleischer, who was leading the group, threw his pack into the pool and jumped in after it, but soon became entangled in the ropes hanging from his pack. Chris Stevens was watching from above. "The current was dragging him in one direction while the pack went in the other. He was getting choked," says Stevens, who yelled to the others for help. Ellis, a scoutmaster and father of seven whose oldest son, Shayne, was along on the trip, immediately jumped in and freed Fleischer, who swam to a nearby log for safely. But then Ellis, who'd hit his head on some rocks, began to flounder in the water. Brewer plunged in after him, dragging Ellis out of a whirlpool.

When the teenagers joined their leaders—sliding down a rope that Dave Fleischer was holding taut from below—Brewer had to break the news to Shayne Ellis that his father was dead. "Mark just kept saying, 'I'm sorry. I'm sorry,' " Shayne remembers. "I thought he was saying he was sorry for getting us in the high water. Then I understood. I couldn't believe it. It was like something was stuck in my throat, and all I wanted to do was swallow what had happened. I just went over to where my dad was and held his hand."

As the rest of the group stared at the series of falls ahead of them, the hopelessness of their plight struck them all. "You just kept thinking, 'Am I next?' " says Larson. They could see an area where the canyon opened up down below them some 80 feet away. Reaching it and camping there until rescuers could find them was their only chance at survival. They propped Ellis's body on a large log and made their way down through the falls, clinging to a rope weighted by a pack. To do so, however, the boys had to remove their packs and toss them in the water to be caught by Fleischer and Brewer, who waited downstream. Helplessly, they all watched as the swift waters carried several of the packs away.

Still they forged ahead. Going over a fall, the pack they needed to use as an anchor got caught in a whirlpool and began to spin wildly. "We couldn't get it back up," says Brewer. "So Dave looks back at the boys and says, 'I've got to do this.' He just jumped in." Fleischer landed on the pack and swam with it to shallower water. But the exhaustion of the descent took its fatal toll: "All of a sudden," says Brewer, "his arm slipped, and the pack got sucked back into the whirlpool. Dave lunged for it, and that's when he got pulled into the waterfall." Brewer looked back at the boys and knew, he says, "I had to stay with them."

Brewer—who had been best man at Fleischer's wedding 2½ years earlier—remains haunted by the memory. "Dave's there, and then...he went under. They say there's a face of death as someone dies. There is. I saw it," he says. But Brewer quickly pulled himself together and got on with the business of survival.

With no way to go forward or back, they set up camp right where they were—on a ledge two feet wide and six feet long tucked into a tiny alcove beside the creek. They dumped their food out onto their one remaining sleeping bag: nine cups of instant pudding, nine packets of oatmeal, 12 chocolate-covered granola bars, two fruit roll-ups, some packs of hot chocolate and a couple of small boxes of raisins. Brewer told the boys it had to last them seven days, and they settled in, waiting and praying.

The nights on the ledge—with Kim Ellis's body 30 feel above and the pool of water where Fleischer had gone under 15 feet below (his body was not recovered until two weeks later)—were the worst. Temperatures dropped into the 30s, bats swooped around them, and the boys had to yell to be heard over the roar of falling water. They slept sitting up, huddled together with the sleeping bag over their heads; sometimes Shayne, the lightest, lay across everyone or sat on Brewer's lap.

Though only about an hour of sun-shine filtered down into the crevices of the canyon, the days were a bit better. The group sang hymns and held prayer sessions, talked about cars and their families and fantasized about food. "It was strange," says Larson, "but you didn't really get that hungry. You knew you had to last with what you had. But I kept thinking about fettucine Alfredo. Chris wanted a Subway sandwich." Says Brewer: "We'd try and postpone dinner as late as possible. One night we ate a box of raisins. We chewed them up one at a time. We made it last 20 minutes."

And they tried to come up with a way out. Even if they could have used their one remaining rope to go back up the cliffs, their feet were too numb and swollen from the cold and wet for them to climb very far. "I really didn't think I was going to get out of there," says Josh Nay. "As the days went on, I started losing it."

On Sunday they tried to make a signal fire. Brewer pulled a pad of paper from his pack. When he ripped the front sheet off, he discovered a drawing of a family tree his daughter had made. "Oh, man, it was heart-wrenching," says Brewer. "The wipers just turned on, and the will to live just kicked in." They used 20 of their 45 waterproof matches, but couldn't get any of them lit.

The following morning they heard a rescue helicopter pass overhead. Brewer knew that no one would be able to find them so deep in the canyon; their only hope was that someone would spot Ellis's body. "It was a really intense canyon—nothing but doom and gloom," says helicopter pilot Kim Hatch, who was dispatched by the park service after the group was declared missing. Forty-five minutes later. Hatch noticed Ellis's body, spotting the tiny fluorescent patches on the elbow and ankle of his wetsuit. At 4:45 p.m. on Monday, July 19, as the boys were settling in for another meager dinner, a rope dropped down from a wall 100 feet above them. "When we saw that helicopter," says Josh Nay, "our hearts just went up to the sky." Brewer and the boys—who escaped with only minor injuries—were hauled up out of the canyon and reunited with their families. "After five days, all of them smelled pretty bad," says Brewer's wife, Janet. "But I don't think any of us had ever smelled anything so sweet."

The group has not yet decided whether to file a lawsuit against the park service. Meantime, the boys are grappling with some painful life lessons. "I think it made us grow up," says Perkins. "I dream about it a lot." Shayne Ellis, who lost his father, also said goodbye to the vestiges of childhood. "It makes you live each day like it's going to be your last," he says. "Realizing you can go out of this life just like that made a man out of me—and out of everybody."

ELIZABETH GLEICK
JOHNNY DODD in South Salt Lake City

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