Utah Flooding Near Death Experience - Whirlpool

Part One

A Near-Death Experience - Flooding On Utah's Little Cottonwood Creek


Part One - Full Video  


Having been raised in New Zealand and now trying to adjust to life in the United States as a 15 year old, I was more than pleased when one of my neighbors approached me about going tubing on a nearby creek. The prior summer I had moved to the Cottonwood heights area of Salt Lake City, and had happily found that there were many other teenagers near my age.

Life in New Zealand had given me opportunities to be a competitive swimmer and to play soccer and rugby, but I was woefully inadequate at bouncing a basketball, or throwing a football. I had always been short for my age, and was just now starting to catch up a little on my growth. I was still hanging on to some of my Kiwi accent, and my lack of American sports skills, my height, and other seeming differences partially consumed my personal perception of how I was fitting in with new found American friends.

Part One - 1975 (Likely in May)

The invitation to go tubing had been extended to many in the neighborhood but, for some reason just three of us were able to join the adventure. We were all 15 years of age and had no idea that two of the three of us would have a near-death experience. Our small group included myself and two very cute neighbor girls Melanie, and Shele -- who was new to the neighborhood. I remember being quietly euphoric about the girl to boy ratio.

Someone, I don't remember who, had access to some large tractor tire tubes, and once fully inflated, the three of us began the 15 minute trek up our street and over a ridge to the flood plain area of Little Cottonwood Creek. Clad in shorts, t-shirts, and old canvas shoes we talked and laughed together as we contemplated an afternoon of fun-in- the-sun. We negotiated our way down a sandy trail passing through a thicket of trees and native brush, lifting our tubes carefully to avoid puncture. The waterway, fed by mountain snow-melt, was chilly but our large tubes kept us predominantly above the water as we began our float downstream.

What we, and most people around us – parents included – were unaware of, was the high-water conditions and damage that had been occurring on the creek. The spring run-off had done some damage along the shore-line of this normally passive creek, up-rooting trees and deeply cutting away the river banks. The high water flow from melting snows in the nearby mountains was just beginning to subside.

Laying on our backs and paddling with our hands, we managed to stay centered in the main current and to avoid overhanging branches and debris that sometimes cluttered the edges of the creek. Normally quite shallow, the creek was now exceptionally wide and had pockets of deeper pools, behind large boulders and near steep eroded banks.

We'd negotiated several bends in the creek when we spotted a whirlpool that had formed against a far edge. The eerie sucking and slurping sound of this water vortex was reason enough to paddle hardleft to remain in the main current, but Melanie was unable to change her course and was being pulled directly toward the whirlpool. Her tractor tire was actually just a bit larger than the circumference of the main spiral, but in her fear of the situation she purposely slid off of her tube to attempt to swim to the creek's edge.

Flooding from snowmelt had increased the water level significantly. Shele was ahead in the main current and glanced over her shoulder, as she rounded a bend, to see if we were keeping up. We both watched in horror as Melanie was drawn into the vortex and her torso, head, and lastly her right hand spun rapidly down, and out of site. Optimistically I hoped the Melanie would be forced out of the spiral and show up momentarily downstream, but there was no sign of her. I gazed further downstream – nothing.

I was still in a position to move to shore just past the whirlpool and proceeded to do what most anyone might do in this situation, to see if Melanie was still in the vortex, and if so, to get her out. I rapidly scanned the area nearby for a large branch that I might extend into the whirlpool, but could see nothing that would help. My only option was to try to reach out over the bank and into the water cone. I know I contemplated the risk to myself of being pulled in with Melanie, but I could come up with no other solution.

I positioned my body, with my upper torso extended over the water, and reached my right arm down inside and miraculously felt Melanie's fingertips spinning across mine. I reached deeper and our hands brushed together and I felt her desperately grip my hand and wrist. I gripped back and leveraged the weight of my lower body to counter balance, and avoid my being pulled in. It seemed like too much time had passed, and that Melanie would certainly be completely out of breath, but somehow our joint efforts maneuvered her body sideways out of the rotating waters and then upward. She exploded to the surface with simultaneous gasps and sobs as she inhaled her first new breaths of oxygen, having just fought through a near-death experience. Shele had managed to get to shore and now came running from down-stream to help extricate Melanie from her grip of some shoreline tree roots, and out of the cold water.

We had no towels, and Melanie shivered as we sat quietly together, and she attemped to compose her emotions from what was certainly a near-death experience. Finally she blurted out, "I was just spinning, and there was no way out or up." We recounted to each other the details of the event, as Shele continued to comfort Melanie.

We could state the obvious, such as...

Do more research on conditions before tubing on a river. That's possibly true, but we were far enough away from this creek that these things were not on our radar, nor our parents. And remember, we didn't have social media at the time to educate us on every little thing going on around us.

I've given this a lot of thought, and the one thing that comes to mind is how much we depend on each other. We often innocently go about daily life and then a situation arises that needs immediate attention, and we are ALL-IN, solving the problem. Willing to do whatever it takes.

What is sometimes more difficult to ascertain, and to respond to, are the times when others around us are in need of saving, but the signs of this need are not so obvious. Everyone of us has, or is now, experiencing a time of need. A time when we need others to bolster us up, or care for us in some way. Health problems, family concerns, job challenges, the severe sickness or death of someone we love – these can be overwhelming.

We can become consumed with our personal challenges, but wise people around us might suggest that the solution to our concerns may come in our putting aside our personal concerns, as daunting as they may feel, and looking outwardly at the needs of others. What happens when we do this?

– We realize we're not alone in our struggles, and for a time we divert our minds away from our personal woes, as we share kindness, and service to others.

What simple things can we do today?

– Greet others cheerfully and sincerely.
– Listen better, talk less. Try not to have a better story, just listen.
– When we are listening with our ears, our mind, and our heart, we will feel promptings of what to do for others. Respond to these promptings.

Click here for Part Two