October 28, 2010
Kimberly Appelson’s family can have closure, now that her body has been recovered from the frigid depths of the Arkansas River north of Buena Vista.
The 23-year-old first-year river guide became the fourth person in the last 10 years to die in the treacherous Frog Rock rapid. Appelson’s life jacket couldn’t save her when powerful current sucked her beneath the rock and she was wedged in.
Last week, cadaver dogs confirmed the presence of a body and a temporary coffer dam was built to divert most of the river current away so the fire department’s dive team could retrieve the remains (see my blog for photo).
For the agencies involved, it was a low-cost training opportunity. But CSFD Capt. Steve Riker, who heads the dive team, said “I think the biggest thing was closure for the family.”
There’s no doubt that’s true.
Over a few hours in the windy chill above 8,000 feet, the dive team worked with about 30 other strangers. No one in the group knew Appelson or her family members and before Wednesday many members of the multi-agency recovery team had not even met each other.
Members of search and rescue teams from Summit and Chaffee counties built a kind of zip line so scuba gear and other equipment could be transported to the west bank of the river. In three groups of two divers each, CSFD’s firefighters entered the numbing 34-degree water.
Firefighter Ed Miller, a 31-year CSFD veteran, found Appelson beneath Frog Rock, which he said conceals deep water caverns. Working in shifts, he and other dive team members cleared debris away, then they brought Appelson’s remains to the surface.
“She was in at least 20 feet of water at the time and about 10 feet of water today,” Miller said.
By mid-afternoon, a representative from the Arkansas River Headwaters State Park telephoned Appelson’s father in Chicago.
He reportedly gave his thanks and wept.
Although the family had to have been resigned to a daughter’s fate, the work of the 40 strangers brings them certainty and perhaps a chance for a proper ceremony.
After a de-briefing not far from the river, CSFD members exchanged handshakes. But a mission that was somber from the beginning wouldn’t be celebrated. The feeling was more about satisfaction in a task safely completed, an assist from a well-equipped and highly trained urban department extended to its rural brethren.
As the dive team loaded equipment back into a trailer Wednesday, a member of one of the search and rescue units walked past on his way out.
He simply said: “No way we could have done this without you.”