On a Canadian River, No Deliverance : A Survivor Recounts the Deadly Odyssey That Shook the Ad World
In a lifetime of professional risk-taking, they had climbed to the summit of corporate marketing, earning themselves dazzling views down the glass-and-steel canyons of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
To escape the pressures of that rarefied realm, they would venture now and then as far as possible into the wilderness, where they would mix a few days of relaxation with risk-taking of a less familiar kind.
Last weekend, 11 members of this informal fraternity of friends and high-powered business acquaintances took their sporadic male ritual to a popular stretch of white-water rapids in the wilds of British Columbia. As the corporate world soon learned, only six survived a trip that was to have been “something very peaceful, with outdoor activity and a little excitement,” as one of the survivors said.
By Sunday afternoon, the day after the accident, rescuers had recovered the bodies of five of marketing’s most powerful executives. They were: Richard T. O’Reilly, 65, whose advertising consulting firm had directed President Reagan’s 1980 campaign; Robert V. Goldstein, 50, vice president of advertising for Procter & Gamble; James Fasules, 63, a former senior vice president with the advertising firm DDB Needham Worldwide; and Stuart Jon Sharpe, 37, and Gene Yovetich, 41, both executives with the Chicago office of that company.
Richard Bangs, whose Sobek adventure travel company books trips on the Chilko River (though not this one), said the river is rated 4 on a difficulty scale of 6--"challenging but manageable.”
“Successful people are usually people who are willing to take risks and willing to try things other people aren’t always willing to try,” he said. “As long as we’ve been around we’ve attracted the executive-type personality . . .They have this independent spirit and flair that a lot of the guides have themselves.”
On Tuesday morning, Joe Morrison sat in his office in Hawthorne, where he is executive vice president of marketing for the Mattel Corp. In a building filled with Barbies and He-Men and Masters of the Universe, he hoped work would distract him. But the Chilko River was flooding his stream-of-consciousness.
Just four nights earlier, Morrison had been sitting around a campfire, 200 miles north of Vancouver, “talking about how nice it was to get a chance to just relax and get away from all that executives have to go through.”
With him in the circle of firelight were friends of friends on their maiden river voyage with the group, and men he’d worked with in his marketing career and had rafted with before--O’Reilly; Goldstein; Jack Collins, president of Clorox Co.; Michael Miles, president of Kraft Inc., and Al Wolfe, president of the U.S. division of the DDB Needham Worldwide ad agency.
The group had arrived in Piper Chieftains at the remote Chilko Lake Wilderness Lodge on Wednesday. The next morning they met their outfitter, Ron Thompson, who had guided some members of the party on the same river two years earlier.
The first stretches of river are fairly calm, and Morrison and others had plenty of time to reel in rainbow trout and talk. Throughout the night and next day, though, the Canadian sky spilled cold rain, and by the time the rafters pulled into camp on Friday, one contingent was lobbying to return to the lodge.
“If it had continued to rain, I don’t think anyone would have gone on down the river,” Morrison said. As it happened, the clouds over the river canyon parted and the Milky Way appeared. “It looked like (Saturday) was going to be a marvelous day.”
For dinner that night, the outfitter cooked Cornish game hen and wild rice, with fruit salad, and carrots, onions, and zucchini grilled over the fire. The men wolfed down a dessert of strawberry shortcake baked in a Dutch oven set on the coals.
Fueled by a bit of beer and wine, the conversation sparked and flamed with fish tales, O’Reilly’s corny jokes and talk of the Iran- contra affair and business banter. “It was real stimulating,” Morrison said.
As the evening wore on, Morrison listened with one ear to an argument Robert Goldstein was having with a young woman who had been hired to ferry the outfitters’ equipment in a van.
At Procter & Gamble, Goldstein supervised a national advertising budget of about $1.4 billion--reportedly the largest in the world. That night in Canada, though, he had nothing better to do than argue morality and ethics with a recent college graduate.
“Bob is a very, very brilliant philosophical guy and he just loved it,” Morrison said. “The argument went on endlessly . . .”
The next morning, most of the camp was up by 6. After a breakfast of eggs Benedict, they prepared to put in again. Everyone knew that they’d be facing a stretch of rapids called “the white mile.”
The 11 executives pulled on life vests and sat on benches between the rubberized tubes of the raft. Then their guide heaved at the oars, pulling them into the Chilko’s currents.
The morning stretch of river was uneventful, Morrison said. “Nobody else in the boat was getting wet. I was getting soaked.” So he joked, “Hey, I want these guys in the back to get wet.”
Around noon, as they approached what Morrison termed “the longest stretch of rapids in North America,” the boaters switched positions and Morrison moved to the bench in the stern.
Soon thereafter, the boat “turned broadside” and plowed into a large rock. “The guide yelled, ‘Get to the rock side!’ ” But the passengers didn’t have time. “Right then, I knew what was happening,” Morrison said.
The boat rode up the rock, becoming almost perpendicular as the men inside pushed the submerged side deeper into the current. “I don’t know what I tried to do,” Morrison said. “I saw the guide going up to the rock side. By then the water was . . . rushing up to my chest.”
Without knowing how he got there, Morrison found himself underwater, moving swiftly downstream in water made pale green by glacial silt.
A Strong Swimmer
Morrison is a strong swimmer, capable of stroking a length and a half of an Olympic pool submerged. But he was helpless in the cold, fast-moving currents. “I couldn’t come to the top . . . I couldn’t see the surface . . . I thought ‘What a stupid way to die.’ I thought about who would notify my kids and how their lives would change.”
Morrison guesses he was underwater as long as 90 seconds before struggling to the surface for the first time. Then “I got hit in the face with a wave and sucked down. I thought I was going to die . . . Because the rapids were so violent, I knew I had to get my feet in front of me, but the life jacket was going up (around his head). I think I got flipped over. I was getting banged on the rocks. “
After what he estimates as five or 10 minutes in the water, Morrison somehow caught a rock or branch and hauled himself out. Standing on the bank, “I shook uncontrollably for about five minutes.”
As he stood quaking, the boat careened downstream with Jack Collins the only person remaining aboard. A moment later Richard O’Reilly, who 17 years earlier had given Morrison a big career break, floated by moaning. “And it wasn’t ‘Help! Help!’ It was real moaning. I didn’t think he would make it.”
On the other side of the river, he saw Arthur Zeikel, an executive with Merrill Lynch in New York. “And I saw the guide, who had already made it up the other side . . . running towards camp.”
Eventually Michael Miles staggered down to where Morrison stood. The narrow canyon prevented them from walking along the river. Instead they clawed their way up the steep dirt and scree canyon bank. About 5, thirsty and battered and worried that they’d spend the night on the frosty mountainside, Morrison and Miles slid back down to the river. An hour later, the guide, who had returned to camp and hauled down a second boat, rowed up to the shore, Morrison said.
“He didn’t say anything. He was alone in the boat. And he was scared.”
‘Looking for Bodies’
The two passengers climbed into the boat, and went through two more rapids. “I said to Mike. ‘You know, we’re looking for bodies. We’re not looking for people any more.’ ”
For the most part, he was right. Earl Madsen, a Colorado attorney had somehow clung to the renegade raft, and escaped when it finally washed ashore with Collins aboard. They found Al Wolfe standing on the shore “in shock” with an injured leg. “He looked awful . . . He was white. Freezing and shaking.” Others had hiked to camp.
By Sunday night, Morrison was back in Los Angeles. Tuesday morning with the river of traffic flowing quietly on the San Diego Freeway behind him, he looked at pictures of past trips and prepared to return the call of Richard O’Reilly’s son. He would try to explain what had happened in the Canadian wilds.
To Richard Bangs of Sobek, the accident was “a freak.” He praised Ron Thompson, the outfitter--"He’s been running Canadian rivers for years and has an excellent reputation.” But he was surprised to hear that Thompson had used only one boat. “That’s unorthodox . . . For something in a wilderness area, with any challenge at all, it’s common practice to have more than one boat.”
Other river guides wondered if in this case the risks were well-chosen--or even understood by the participants.
“There’s a lot of speculation, ‘Why was there that much loss of life?’ ” said Dan Dierker a 35-year-old boatman with 17 years experience rafting in the Grand Canyon and Alaska, as well as in Canada.
After seeing television footage of the disaster scene, Dierker said he and other boatmen concluded that the rubberized raft was “heavily overloaded” and thus difficult to maneuver. “It was one heck of a heavy boat,” Dierker said.
Dierker also speculated that Canadian attitudes toward the outdoors may have played a role. In Canada, he said, “the population is a lot more at ease, at home in the wilderness.”
“There the assumption is: ‘This man is in the outdoors with me and he’s a big boy so he must know we’re not going strolling down a sidewalk.’ There’s a logical assumption that people have to assume some of the risk themselves.”
And even as he spoke Tuesday evening, rescuers were again searching the Chilko River. A seven-passenger boat in a two-raft party of West Germans had hit a rock in the Lava Canyon stretch of the river that afternoon, and a passenger wearing a wet suit, a helmet and life vest was killed.