Local guides call it Death Bridge. From the road it looks old and crusty. Up close in a drift boat it looks down right scary. The ancient railroad trestle runs across a section of an anonymous river in south central Colorado. Structurally speaking this bridge was clearly built in an era long past. A combination of cement and wood support form the abutments, which are spaced much closer together than those constructed today. Once you are intimate with Death Bridge you can see that the water does not flow clearly through. The river pushes up against each abutment at an awkward angle –pulling whatever comes in its path against the old support pylons. Putting a drift boat under Death Bridge is like threading a needle.
In river speak, Death Bridge is really a black hole of sorts—a boat eater.
On an early morning in July, Joe Delling, Kevin Wright and Larry Drabek put in just above Death Bridge. As they approached the structure, Wright noticed the excessive amount of debris pinned against each abutment. Sticks, 2X4s, and even construction rebar formed a deadly river strainer. As the drift boat and three anglers slowly approached the bridge everyone was quiet as they waited to pass through.
“My buddy Larry is rowing on the approach and as he brings it in we’re just gliding—slowly,” said Wright. “Next thing I know the back of the boat kicks out just a bit and within a second we’re up against the pylon.”
In the blink of an eye the off-angle currents pulled the 13-ft. fiberglass RO drift boat against the abutment, flipped it, and dumped all three into the water.
“It all happened in a second,” said Drabek.
“It happened in a half-second,” he said.
“There was one moment where I’m thinking, ‘This certainly isn’t good,’ and I remember the water coming into the floor of the boat. Then I heard a big ‘crack’ and then I just leapt. I was scared. I knew what was underneath that water.”
Wright never felt the icy cold effect of the 42-degree river as he passed beneath the bridge and surfaced on the other side. Breathing hard, he swam furiously and managed to pull himself onto the river’s edge.
Within a minute, everyone had made it to the bank and Delling had dispatched passerbys up river to warn other boaters of the accident. A certified Swiftwater Rescue Technician, Delling immediately began plans to extract the boat using a rope and pulley system. Meanwhile rods, reels, fly boxes, and rain gear either sat at the bottom of the river, bobbed in a small back eddy behind the wrapped boat, or slowly made their way down stream.
Within two hours, a team of six had pulled the boat from the water and managed to turn it off the pylon. The hull of the boat was cracked and in need of repair, but all of the occupants were thankfully unscathed.
“I’ve been in a lot of boats on a lot of rivers and nothing like this has ever happened to me before,” said Wright. “Shit just happened and it happened really fast.”
– Will Rice