A Long Way to Go to Die, a Reporter Remembers

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Sometimes a newspaper, or an individual reporter, just has to own a story. This one began on Aug. 3, 1987, a Monday at dawn.

I was at home in East Hampton when WCBS was carrying a story that as many as a half-dozen ad executives (we would learn that they were Ad Director Bob Goldstein of Procter & Gamble Co.; Richard O'Reilly, former head of President Reagan's Campaign '80; and three other men from P&G agency DDB Needham) had died in a white-water-rafting accident on the Chilko River in British Columbia. I phoned Ad Age Editor Fred Danzig.

"This is our story, Fred." No argument from Danzig. It sounds cold-blooded, I know, but we were too excited about the story to spend time mourning, but just about how we should cover it. Danzig didn't need to check with Rance Crain or anyone. It was go! Just go! And I was the guy. I drove into the city to pack an overnight bag and get out the boots, and Fred got the office going on plane tickets (just where the hell was the Chilko River?) and drawing me a thousand bucks cash just in case. I left La Guardia at 7 the next morning and three planes later it was evening Pacific Time, and I was still 80 miles from the Chilko, a long way to go for a story, a long way to go to die. Through thunderheads and a rainbow, it was on to Williams Lake, nearest airstrip to the river.

All the peaks were snow-covered, even in August, the biggest with glaciers. It is these glaciers that fed the Chilko and why the water was so cold.

There was a Mountie at the Williams Lake airport. No red coat. He was in a khaki shirt and blue trousers, and was picking up some cartons. They had lost another rafter that day, he told me. A German. The B.C. provincial government had put out a statement saying their white-water rafting streams attracted 55,000 people each year and brought in $4 million. At the Sandman Motel when I checked in they were talking about the dead German.

Eleven American businessmen had come to do some rafting here and the Chilko had killed five of them and spit out the other six and their guide. I tried to find out what happened. Why attention must be paid. The local coroner was a former vet, John "Doc" Roberts. He'd sent the bodies to Vancouver for autopsy. Another Mountie, Constable Don Southern, showed me on the big topographical wall map where the river ran through Lava Canyon, where the accident happened. Some guides wouldn't run Lava, the walls being too steep to get out if you capsized. The river water would be about 40 degrees, and this was midsummer. "So we've got to consider hypothermia," he said.

The town had a Safeway and a Pizza Hut, a waterbed store and the old-fashioned grandstands of a rodeo ground. Some teens and Indians hung around the movie house, which was playing "Jaws IV." I went around town asking people to recommend a good driver and guide. At Savalas Steak House kids in high chairs ignored a jukebox playing "Greensleeves." I got some names, made a few calls. In the morning I hired Cindy Watt, a local woman who had rafted through Lava Canyon. Promised her a couple of hundred as I remember; last of the big spenders. Danzig was going to love me.

Our first stop was up a dirt road cut into the mountainside where a cougar had taken a rancher's horse right out of the corral a few nights back. We wanted to see Ron Thompson, the guide. He was a Yank but he'd been guiding here 13 years. An outdoors writer for the Chicago Trib had spoken to him by phone but he was ducking the press otherwise. There was a house and barn up a road, and an unfriendly dog was barking when a young woman, barefoot and in shorts, came out. "The police advised us to prepare a statement but we haven't done it yet so we can't talk to you. He feels pretty bad." I thought I could see Thompson looking at us from a window. Wondered if he had a rifle in there.

Cindy said she'd run the river with Ron. It was June and it snowed. Ron was very strict, she said. "He told you what to do and made you do it." We drove back down his mountain and crossed the Fraser River, and at Alexis Creek, just a wide place in the road, I went into the Mountie station where the constable turned out rather stuffy. Maybe he was tired. He and his sergeant, Ken Williamson, had been doing the work. It was they who brought in the bodies downriver, the German as well as the others. By late morning we were on a gravel road bordering the Chilko itself.

It was very green, the greenest water I'd ever seen. That's because of the glacier, Cindy said. An Indian was out on a rickety platform hanging out over the river, looking to spear salmon in the rapids. All year long is salmon season for Indians. Then two small rafts came by with guys who waved up to us. I don't know if they'd ridden Lava Canyon but with six people dead inside of four days, these guys were still rafting.

This was logging country and we had hamburgers at Chilcotin Lodge where they have old logging saws on the wall, and along the main roads, there were frequent uphill turnoffs where logging trucks could turn into and slow if they lost their brakes on the descent. It took us 2 hours to get back to Williams Lake through rain squalls and then brilliant sun, and at Cariboo Memorial Hospital, the biggest building in town, I did some more interviews. That was where they brought in the bodies and patched up the wounded. And people were still arguing with no one quite sure what really happened.

Like the reporter looking for "Rosebud," I hadn't really found a damned thing. The last interview I did was with Earle Cooper, editor of The Tribune, the local paper at Williams Lake. "You must have been busy," I said. "The phones never stopped ringing," he told me. "But except for a camera crew from BC TV, you're the only reporter who came." Five important men died there and no one else bothered to see the place.

I had a child's spiral notebook and had already begin to write the story longhand. Back at O'Hare the next day I would hand the story over to someone from Ad Age who would take it and my film to the office so we could make Monday's paper.

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