Did federal negligence help kill two hikers?

  • A hiker walks in Kolob Canyon Creek

    Dennis Turville
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, I came, I saw, I wrote a guidebook.

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah - Who's to blame when a backcountry hike turns deadly? Expert witnesses are being interviewed now for a trial next year that will ask that question. The case revolves around a disastrous hike that left two men dead just hours after a youth group rappelled some 60 feet into Kolob Canyon, in southern Utah.

Mormon Church expedition leaders David Fleischer, 28, and Leroy Kim Ellis, 37, drowned July 15, 1993, in the raging waters of Kolob Creek on public land just outside Zion National Park.

Widows of the men, along with 13 other heirs or survivors of the outing, then sued the National Park Service and the Washington County Water Conservancy District in federal court last August.

The suit says the federal agency and water district were negligent because they failed to warn Fleischer's group adequately. Both agencies deny liability, and last year the federal government denied a similar $24.5 million tort claim against the Park Service. Agency officials said the group was issued a permit after being told the hike would be difficult and time-consuming. "They take on the personal responsibility," said park superintendent Larry Wiese.

Guidebook authors and experienced canyoneers have ventured second guesses about what went wrong in the narrow slot canyon. Their view is that the boys and their three adult leaders were not well enough prepared and died because they made mistakes (HCN, 8/22/94).

The case could set a precedent for determining land agencies' liability when the desire for adventure leads people into trouble.

Tragedy struck only a few hours after the group rappelled into the canyon depths. Instead of ankle-deep water, the hikers found themselves fighting strong, knee-high currents caused by releases from an upstream reservoir. Fleischer and Ellis died trying to force their way past waterfalls and plunge pools.

The surviving adult, Mark Brewer, 37, abandoned any attempt to go forward and huddled with the hungry, cold teens in a small alcove beneath a cliff to await rescue, which came five days later.

Survivors, with the exception of one teenager who has not joined the lawsuit, say they suffer lingering nightmares and physical ailments. Widows and children of the dead men say they have suffered emotionally and economically.

More than 80 witnesses will be called to testify at the trial, according to documents filed with U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City. They include psychologists, doctors and sociologists. The trial is expected to focus on three key issues:

Attitude. Fleischer was called a thrill-seeker by his widow, and the defense will call experts to bolster the contention he took unnecessary risks in Kolob Canyon;

Preparedness. An investigation by the Park Service indicates that the hikers had little experience with canyoneering; defense witnesses will testify to the adequacy of their equipment and how the Mormon Church selects and approves leaders of youth activities.

Damages. Two doctors will testify about claims that hike survivors suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition diagnosed in some war veterans.

A conference to set a trial date was scheduled for December, but plaintiffs told Judge J. Thomas Greene that their trial preparation work had been delayed by the still-dangerous waters of Kolob Creek.

"Continued high-water flows through Kolob Creek Canyon (caused by natural conditions beyond the control of the parties) have made it impossible for plaintiffs' canyoneering expert, James Dunaway, to safely enter the canyon to complete his work," said the hikers' attorneys, Dale Kimball, Robert Clark and Mark James of Salt Lake City.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...