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July 3, 2004

A Rough Day on the Dead
By Christy McKinnon

Guiding rafts is kind of like driving a race car. It's fun and exciting and there might be crashes and carnage (flips and swimmers) but the majority of the time it goes off without a hitch. There are very few days where a life is endangered. This was one of those days.
      That morning (Memorial Day 2004), Adam Swett, trip leader for the day, let me choose my guide. I was scheduled to guide my first trip down the Dead the next weekend and wanted to further acquaint myself with the river, so I was hopping in a boat as passenger. The video boater, Drew Duval, suggested Justin Hurlburt, a fourth year guide, who Drew described as "always fun." Famous last words. I donít know if it was a blessing or a curse but it was definitely a day I wonít forget.
      We were below Satanís Hole [the big hole at the bottom of Mile Long rapid] just left of center and following Todd Mercer from the Penobscot. We watched his crew sink sideways into a hole. Toddís crew maneuvered through it by shifting weight from the upstream tube to the downstream tube. "Toddís boat seemed to have a good hit," said Justin.
      We followed him into it and our fate was not as kind.
      The boat sunk in hard sideways. In seconds the downstream tube flipped over the upstream tube. Though it happened quickly everything slowed down as I realized what was happening but couldnít react.
      Myself, and one guest were submerged and caught under the raft. I struggled for a moment attempting to swim back and out from underneath it. I stopped struggling thinking I was going to die. The next moment I was pushed out and gulped air. I was downstream, river right of the raft and the others were close by. There were rafts all around us. I could see Justin hadnít recovered the boat. I assumed heíd get there soon and swam towards the closest boat. The crew was rescued but Justin never showed.
      Mike McConnell steered his boat towards us and tied our boat to his after flipping it right side and we hopped in and were pulled to an eddy. "Everyone seemed fine. I wasnít in any kind of a panic," said Mike. That was before he realized Justinís predicament. We waited with concern hoping to see Justin. The sweep boat rounded the corner with Greg Caruso guiding and Justin riding passenger.
      Any fears allayed, our crew cheered and Justin smiled heartily as he jumped into the boat.
      The remainder of the river he was upbeat and seemingly unnerved but his face was splotchy red and yellow. He warned us not to mind if he vomited suddenly. It was just that heíd swallowed a lot of water. The crew happily chattered about their exciting swims as Justin maneuvered the raft .
      While the rest of the crew was pushed out of the hole immediately Justin was recirculated. When the raft flipped he was sucked into the hole and hit his head on the rock causing the hole. He was unconscious for what he thinks was 15 to 20 seconds. He remembers waking to helplessness. " I was floating around underwater but not being able to do anything to help myself out."
      A surfing kayaker attempted to pull him out by offering the nose of his boat to grab onto but "I got sucked back," said Justin.
      There were several attempts made to retrieve Justin from the hole. Brian Stuart threw a bag only to watch it get pushed out of Justinís reach. Justin also tried to get his life jacket unbuckled but was unsuccessful.
      His helmet, loosely fastened, slipped off the back of his head, his strap still under his chin. He began choking and took the helmet off. After he discarded his helmet he was pushed into the rock once more and hit his head again. "I remember thinking this might be it."
      Around this time Gregís boat showed. Another guide pointed to the hole and though Greg didnít know who was in there he knew what was happening. "It was just like right out of a dream. I knew exactly what was up although I couldnít see him." Greg readied his throw bag before he could see the hole. "I knew if I funked it up he was gonna be really bad off," said Greg.
      The bag landed right in front of Justin but he wasnít making a move for it. "Term got a bag to me but I was so funking confused I didnít know enough to grab it," said Justin. Greg yelled over and over to grab the bag. The rope was unraveling quickly. "It (the rope) was right at the very end and he barely got a finger on it," said Greg. Greg pulled him out of the hole after nearly three minutes.
      "Iíve had some weird stuff happen to me but Iíd never seen anybody get recirced," said Greg whoís guided for thirteen years.
      "If Term didnít get me out I donít know if I wouldíve gotten out. I didnít have much fight left in me," said Justin.
      Our crew never fully understood the seriousness of the situation and Justin never let on his life was in danger. He finished the trip like a trooper even after falling into Fryolator and losing his crew again. He was later diagnosed with a concussion and a bacterial infection from swallowing so much water.
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