The Valdez Star - Serving Prince William Sound and Copper River Basin

Editor, Valdez Star 

Woman dies after raft overturns in Keystone Canyon tragedy

Rescuers help save young girl and others after accident sweeps victims away


Photo courtesy Dean Cummings/H20 Guides

The Valdez Fire Dept. Surface Water Rescue Team deployed its resources Saturday, coming to the aid of six rafters who were reportedly dumped into the Lowe River - including a 9-year old girl.

A bluebird day of rafting turned to tragedy Saturday evening after a raft carrying six people overturned on the Lowe River in Keystone Canyon.

Theresa Williams of Fairbanks, age 48, died despite the fast response from bystanders after she was washed down river, along with a nine-year old girl who survived the incident according to City of Valdez officials.

Four others on the ill-fated raft managed to self-rescue shortly after the raft capsized, reportedly after hitting a pillar on the second bridge crossing the Lowe River in Keystone Canyon.

Allie Ferko, the city's public information officer, issued a press release Monday.

"Valdez Fire Department Surface Water Rescue Team responded late Saturday to reports of an overturned raft in Keystone Canyon with six people in the water," the city said. "At approximately 7:07 p.m. on Saturday, June 4th, Valdez Fire and Police Dispatch received multiple reports of people, including a child, in the Lowe River inside Keystone Canyon. Responders arrived on scene within five minutes and were advised the raft hit a bridge pillar and overturned, sending all six passengers into the river."

The city states that multiple bystanders came to the aid of the four rafters who made it to shore shortly after the accident.

Williams and the unidentified girl were swept away according to official accounts.

"The remaining two rafters, a 48 year-old female (Williams) and 9 year-old female, were swept down river approximately one mile," the city said. "Bystanders located the 48 year-old female unresponsive on the right bank of the river and began CPR. Upon arrival, emergency medical technicians provided advanced life support care on scene and transported the woman by ambulance to Providence Valdez Medical Center where she was pronounced deceased."

Ferko confirmed the account in a telephonic interview Monday.

"She was washed up on the shore by the river," she said, and noted that the youngster in the drama who was soon rescued was also caught up in the rapids. "The little girl - same thing - she was floating down river."

Fortunately, the girl survived the ordeal - after heroic efforts from another member of the rafting party.

"After successfully self-rescuing, the lead member of the rafting party jumped into the river to locate the 9 year-old female," the city said. "The child managed to self-rescue and the adult rafter swam to her location. Both remained on the far bank of the river upon first responder arrival."

The preliminary accounts says that three Fire Department Surface Water Rescue Team personnel "utilized the department's rescue raft to cross the river. Both the adult and child rafter were checked for injuries and transported across the river. Responders transported the child to Providence Valdez Medical Center for hypothermia observation."

A third member of the rafting team, a 31-year old male, "was transported to Providence Valdez Medical Center by ambulance due to difficulty breathing and chest pain," the city said.

The incident sent shockwaves through the Fairbanks area, where all six rafters are from.

"The private raft excursion on the Lowe River was part of a retreat program based in Fairbanks," the city said. "All six occupants of the raft were from the Fairbanks area."

The city also said it was the second trip down the river taken by the group that day.

Fortunately, all six members of the rafting party were wearing dry suits and flotation devices for the excursion - which played a key roll in saving five lives.

"The Lowe River through Keystone Canyon is rated Class III in difficulty," the city said.

Map courtesy City of Valdez

This map shows the location of the series of events that unfolded in Keystone Canyon Saturday evening.

Less than two hours before the tragedy, Williams had posted photos of the trip on Facebook, including a selfie in front of Bridal Veil Falls.

"Feeling happy," her status still said on Monday.

The incident remains under investigation according to the city and next of kin have been notified.

Valdez Fire Department Surface Water Rescue Team can often be seen practicing it's white water skills and regularly practices around Valdez - and quite frequently on the Lowe River itself.

The stretch of river that runs approximately five miles through Keystone Canyon is considered one of the most scenic in Alaska. That particular stretch of the river is particularly scenic and passes by Bridal Veil Falls, a major attraction in the area.


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