Al Wolfe became the lightning rod for the grief, bitterness and lawsuits that followed the Chilko tragedy. ``White Mile'' includes awesome white water scenes, on-the-money dialogue and some marvelous acting by (from left) Peter Gallagher, Alan Alda and R
The night before he was to return to white-water rafting, Al Wolfe was awakened by "a wild dream" in which the wife of one of the victims of the Chilko River tragedy was screaming at him. He never went back to sleep.
It had been about two years since his last such trip: the 1987 visit to British Columbia that started as a getaway weekend for 11 friends and business acquaintances and ended with five of them drowning in the river.
The former president of DDB Needham Worldwide's Chicago office had organized the trip, as he had done for nearly 20 years. And he was to become the lightning rod for the grief, bitterness and lawsuits that followed as the victims' distraught families sought to cope with the event, now being dramatized in a made-for-TV movie.
The lives of Al Wolfe and the other survivors haven't been the same since that August day when their raft hit a rock in the Chilko and dumped all but one of the riders into the cold, turbulent stretch of the river called the "White Mile."
Perishing were Robert Goldstein, VP-advertising for Procter & Gamble Co.; retired agency executive Richard O'Reilly; retired DDB Needham Senior VP James Fasules; and two of the agency's rising stars, Stuart Sharpe and Gene Yovetich, both senior VPs-account management.
"I think of it as not necessarily a turning point in my life, but certainly a major event," says survivor Joe Morrison, at the time an executive with Mattel. "It gave me new insight as to how fragile life is, and how things can change from one second to another."
The HBO movie called "White Mile" is loosely based on court transcripts and accident reports, and premiered May 21. Up until the final script, sources say, the movie's producers planned to use real names, but phone calls from lawyers changed that.
The river's name is used, although the scenes weren't filmed there, and there is a casual reference to "Wells Rich" as a competing agency to the one in the story.
Mr. Morrison, now president of his own entertainment company, saw "White Mile" earlier this month at its first Hollywood screening-oddly enough, as the guest of actor Robert Loggia, who plays a retired agency executive in the movie. The two men are members of the same California country club.
Mr. Morrison describes the movie's depiction of agency life as "very trite," and says, "The characters and motivations are not true, but shaded for dramatic effect."
He takes a breath. "Having said that, several times I said, `That's me; that's exactly what happened.' But it's all in the shading."
Jack Collins, the former president-CEO of Clorox Co. who'd been on four earlier rafting trips with Mr. Wolfe before the Chilko tragedy, says he believes the story's attraction for moviemakers is first, the high percentage of the group killed; second, the mystique of white-water rafting; and third, the high-profile makeup of the party.
"It's that angle of `captains of industry being knocked off' ... and the questions of whether we were off in the woods fixing prices or something," he says.
The issue of coercion, the centerpiece of a real-life lawsuit, also feeds the film; the print ad for "White Mile" hypes the movie by asking, "Will not taking this trip cost them their jobs?"
To a man, the survivors and others familiar with the trip say no.
These outdoor getaways had a long and storied history in the marketing community-so much so that Philip Morris Cos. Chairman-CEO Mike Miles, then president-CEO of Kraft, signed up for the 1987 trip after hearing the tales.
The core group had its roots back at the New York office of Wells, Rich, Greene in the 1960s. Mr. Wolfe supervised the agency's P&G business, and Dick O'Reilly was an agency manager while Joe Morrison worked under him. Bob Goldstein and Jack Collins were at P&G, managers on its personal care business. They all worked on such assignments as introducing Sure antiperspirant and relaunching Gleem toothpaste.
More so than now, agencies and clients tried to get to know each other away from the office.
"I wasn't part of the wining and dining set," Mr. Wolfe recalls in a recent interview. "Jack Collins wasn't, either. We both liked the outdoors, and started hunting together. We evolved from that into rafting.
"When you're out there," adds the Wyoming native, "all the trappings are gone and you get down to the basics of human beings and who they are."
Mr. Wolfe organized the first rafting trip, to Idaho's Selway River, in the late '60s. By the time 1987 rolled around, he had set up four rafting trips on the Selway, one on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, and one in '85 on the Chilko, located in a beautiful, remote area of the Canadian province.
On that earlier Chilko trip, the men spent three days on the river. The fishing wasn't good, but "the half-day we floated on the Chilko, everybody loved," Mr. Wolfe remembers. It was so good that four of them came back for more in 1987.
Over the course of time, his core group-predictably for such Type-A personalities-had climbed the corporate ladder. Mr. Collins had moved from P&G to Clorox; Mr. Morrison left the agency world to become exec VP-marketing at Mattel. Mr. Goldstein remained at P&G, promoted to oversee the company's mammoth ad budget. Mr. O'Reilly had retired, becoming an agency consultant and heading up the Media-Advertising Partnership for a Drug-Free America.
The group expanded, with friends securing invitations for friends-like Art Zykiel, president of Merrill Lynch Asset Management, a friend of Mr. O'Reilly who made both Chilko trips.
"Al likes to have contact with people; he's a people person who enjoys the outdoors," Mr. Collins says. "He was the spark plug; he took it upon himself to be the organizer of these trips. He was sort of an administrative secretary for this informal social club."
But Mr. Wolfe, in his soft-spoken but straightforward way, says the trips made good business sense as well.
"If you hired good people at your agency, that was only the first part. The more exposure they had to their counterparts at the client, the better the working relationship would be," he says.
"If you could get away from the titles and pretense and really get to know each other, there would be a bond formed."
On top of that, the trips had become perks for those at Mr. Wolfe's agency-after WRG, N W Ayer and then DDB Needham, where he started in 1981.
It was a perk for Mr. Yovetich, who loved the outdoors but also knew that a key client executive, Jack McDonough of Anheuser-Busch, initially was set to go on the ill-fated Chilko trip.
The all-star list of those who couldn't make that trip also included Bob Kuperman, now president of Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif., and Pat McGinnis, now head of Ralston Purina Co.'s pet food business.
When longtime friend and attorney Phil Reiss had to drop out at the last minute, Mr. Wolfe called Mr. Yovetich, who was visiting the Fasules home in Montana. Did the younger man think Jim Fasules, an enthusiastic fly fisherman, would like to go, too?
Mr. Fasules called back; "You bet I would" was the enthusiastic reply, says Mr. Wolfe.
Mr. Fasules' motives for going on the Chilko trip were discussed at length in a lawsuit filed by his family against DDB Needham. In November 1990, a U.S. District Court jury ultimately decided that despite inadequate safety precautions on the part of the guide, the retired executive was 45% responsible for his own death and Needham 55%, awarding the family $1.1 million in damages.
Was there a business reason for Mr. Fasules, 63, to be on the trip? "Absolutely not," says Mr. Wolfe.
What happened after the group gathered in Canada has been well-documented: On the first day of the trip, a Thursday, half the group fished and half went rafting on the Chilko-without incident. On Saturday morning, the whole group set out again to "float" the rapids.
"Up until the point we hit the rock, everyone was having a ball," Mr. Wolfe remembers. Some teased Mr. Goldstein, who had fallen into the water on a previous trip and had had to be fished out.
Except in trial testimony, Mr. Wolfe has never spoken publicly about his own experience on the river, and the accident's ef-fect on his life. And he says he, like the other survivors, never spoke to the movie crew.
Now 62, a white-haired gentleman of average build, he doesn't look the part of the menacing, single-minded agency president portrayed by Alan Alda in "White Mile."
He lives in Sedona, Ariz., having retired from DDB Needham in 1988, and serves as "the fundraiser of the western world"-for Phoenix' Heard Museum and a host of other environmental and educational organizations. He also serves on the Clorox board.
But the Chilko accident is never far out of his mind, especially of late.
Though obviously not a person who dwells on the past, he has regrets. He wishes he'd insisted on two rafts for the party, instead of letting all 11 group members be crammed into a single boat.
"On any subsequent rafting trips, I've done two things: I've made sure not to overload, and if I'm going into tough rapids, I'm constantly looking for a recovery point," he says.
A recovery point is exactly what he didn't have when the raft upended and dumped him into the river. He spent about 45 minutes being hurtled through 2 1/2 miles of rapids.
"It was like being in a washing machine," he says today. "There was no relief. I mean, sometimes I'd come up and get a little air, sometimes I couldn't get to the surface. But I spent most of the time just screaming to myself so I wouldn't give up."
Without success, he tried to move his body toward the edge of the river, to rocks or still water or anything to slow him down.
"When I felt I was running out of gas, the thought `You know, you can't go on any longer' came into my mind," he says. "I knew I had to get out of there. I looked over to the left and saw some rocks, but the current was too strong and I couldn't make it over there.
"At that point, I was reaching up to the guy above, calling for my local pastor. I took another look and saw this tree. The river edge was a sheer wall, but this tree had grown from the water right next to it. It was the only form of anything I saw that I could get a hold of. I set sight on it, kicked over and rolled over on my back, turned and got the very end of it.
"I didn't want to take a chance of breaking it off, so I just held on for 30 minutes or so, until I felt I could go up hand over hand to where the tree was strong enough for me to pull my body up onto it and rest."
He pauses; the pain is etched on his face. "I was as lucky as hell," he says.
Making it out of the river was only the beginning, though.
Longtime friend Earl Madsen, one of the six who lived, stood by at the hospital and morgue as Mr. Wolfe made the final identifications of corpses and made the phone calls to the victims' families.
"At some points, he was being abused by the families," Mr. Madsen says. "Nobody suffered as much personally. ... I don't think people understand the toll it took on him."
Mr. Wolfe says he tried to stay in touch with the victims' families, but one by one they cut off contact.
"One counselor told me, `They can't be angry at the husbands they lost, so it has to be you or the boatman,"' he says. "The boatman was an unknown to them ... so I became the focal point of all that grief, and it was hard."
He's struggled with the anger, the lawsuits, the publicity, and now the movie.
"I accepted responsiblity for what I'd done and recognize what I'd do differently, but I couldn't let other people assign guilt to me in their grief, whatever their motivation," he says.
"I questioned myself a lot because of the things that were being said by the lawyers and families, but I said: Hey, I wasn't trying to take advantage of anyone. I wasn't misleading anyone. And there was an awful lot of enjoyment had by people who went on those trips."
For his part, Mr. Morrison says that after he escaped the Chilko rapids, he sat on the side of the river.
"I shook involuntarily for half an hour; I realized I'd almost died," he says. "And as I sat there, I thought: If I ever again worry about corporate politics or egos or what people think of me, I'm a loony. And I told myself I have to get started on my life."
Then in line for the presidency of Mattel, Mr. Morrison's goals changed. He didn't get the job, and shortly after left Mattel to run his own company, to do "some hands-on stuff."
He carries a simple card in his wallet. "It's just a reminder of things I want to do, and to keep events in perspective. I was fortunate; this is my way of saying, `Let's do something about it."'
Mr. Collins, the only one to remain in the raft, says the hardest thing for him "was the terrible compression of time.
"We were on the river Saturday, I was at home on Sunday and on Monday I had to call all the [Clorox] advertising people together and tell them that their friend Stu Sharpe had died," says Mr. Collins, who soon will turn 64. "I don't know how I got through it."
He stayed at Clorox until 1990, when he retired to California's Sonoma County wine country. He works on civic groups and has hobbies-like a novel, "potboiler fiction" he calls it, he's writing with his son. "I find myself thinking about the accident at odd intervals, less as time passes," Mr. Collins says.
He says he'll watch HBO's movie because "present fears are less than horrible imaginings," quoting Shakespeare. But, he admits, "When I saw it was really on, I felt a certain sense of dread, knowing that I'd have to watch it."