A woman who died on a commercial rafting trip last week on the San Juan River north of Pagosa Springs has been identified as a 43-year-old mother of three who was on vacation with her family from Indiana at the time of the accident.
Archuleta County Coroner Brandon Bishop said an autopsy determined Amy Kirsch died as a result of drowning. He said her death was ruled as accidental.
“It’s a dangerous sport,” Bishop said. “And accidents happen in sports like that.”
Around 10:30 a.m. June 20, emergency personnel were alerted that a woman was ejected from a raft and free-floating in the river in need of rescue.
According to an accident report, Kirsch, her husband and three children were on the guided trip on a section of the San Juan River above Pagosa Springs, considered a Class 4/5 run at a time when the river was running at higher-than-normal flows.
Speaking to authorities, the river guide said the raft hit a wave just below the confluence of the East and West Fork of the San Juan River that sent Kirsch, her husband and two daughters overboard. It was initially reported the raft had flipped in the river.
The guide and another nearby raft were able to rescue the other family members. Kirsch, however, was swept downstream, traveling about 3 miles over the course of 15 to 20 minutes.
The rafting guides caught up with Kirsch, who was unconscious and without a pulse, on an island in the river alongside the San Juan River Village, a neighborhood just off U.S. Highway 160, about 6 miles north of Pagosa Springs.
The guides performed CPR while emergency crews responded to the scene, arriving about 15 minutes after the call came through dispatch. According to the report, the guides then placed Kirsch back on the raft and brought her to shore where first responders were waiting.
Archuleta County Undersheriff Derek Woodman said CPR continued, and by the time Kirsch was placed in an ambulance, she had regained a pulse but was still unconscious. She was taken to Pagosa Springs Medical Center, where her heart was showing signs of activity.
However, Kirsch had gone too long without a pulse, Woodman said, and wasn’t able to survive.
“We always like to think that when someone has a pulse when they get in the ambulance, they are going to survive,” he said. “But that’s not always the case.”
Calls seeking comment from the company – Pagosa Rafting Outfitters – were not returned for this story.
According to the company’s website, the trip the family was on is listed as an “intermediate whitewater rafting trip,” which “offers a busy start through technical boulder-filled rapids.” Children younger than 12 are not allowed on the trip.
Bishop did not have specific ages of the children on the trip but said all were teenagers.
Woodman said the tragic event has sparked intense reflection and discussion in the community, where a death from a rafting accident hasn’t occurred in years on the San Juan River.
There had been discussion the previous week, Woodman said, about whether to close the river because of unusually high water levels that posed a risk to public safety. But ultimately, Archuleta County Sheriff Richard Valdez decided against that course of action.
“It’s difficult for the government to step in and say you can’t do that,” Woodman said. “And there should be a certain amount of individual responsibility. Everyone knew what the water flow was, what the rapids were like, and it ended being an unfortunate situation.”
It’s unclear how the trip was marketed to the family, Woodman said. But at the time of the accident, everyone was wearing a personal flotation device, a helmet and either a wetsuit or drysuit. Authorities don’t know if the family had any experience rafting or if family members knew what to expect.
“There was no missing what the river was running like,” he said. “If you just drove through town, it was like, ‘holy cow.’”
Attempts to reach the family were also unsuccessful for this story.
According to an obituary, Kirsch was from Evansville, Indiana – about a three-hour drive southwest of Indianapolis on the Ohio River.
She loved the outdoors, camping and traveling with family, the obituary said. She worked as an educational coordinator for the Respiratory Therapy Department at Deaconess Hospital, a health care center in Evansville.
Bishop said he intends to reach out to the rafting company and the river guide to offer support.
“It’s just a tragic accident,” he said.