4 Mi­ami men died raft­ing on a Costa Rica bach­e­lor trip, and they weren’t the first

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY TAY­LOR DOLVEN tdol­[email protected]­ami­her­ald.com

As Jaycee Green­blatt read a story about the five men, four of them from Mi­ami, who died in a white wa­ter raft­ing ac­ci­dent in Costa Rica last month, the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween that tragedy and the worst day of her life made her feel ill.

Just two years ago Green­blatt, 32, saw the cur­rent of the Sara­piquí River sweep the limp body of her boyfriend,

Raft­ing guides in Costa Rica say the coun­try’s reg­u­la­tion in­fra­struc­ture has not evolved enough to en­sure the safety of tourists who go white­wa­ter raft­ing.

Ed­ward Vish­n­evet­sky, then 34, past her as she fought to keep her head above the wa­ter and stay alive. Their raft, one of two on the tour, had cap­sized on the first rapid. A rafter on the other boat that day, Alex Suastegui, 29, said he pulled Vish­n­evet­sky’s body out of the wa­ter.

“We’d gone from be­ing tourists to be­ing first re­spon­ders,” said Suastegui. “We weren’t ready for that. You’re just wait­ing on lunch they’re go­ing to pro­vide for you, and now you have to res­cue some­one.”

For hours Green­blatt didn’t know if Vish­n­evet­sky had made it out of the river alive or not, un­til the guides led her down to the spot where his blue body lay naked on a raft, wait­ing for a coro­ner. Vish­n­evet­sky had drowned.

Green­blatt and Suastegui won­der if the raft­ing com­pany, De­safio Ad­ven­ture, made the right de­ci­sion to go out that day. If Vish­n­evet­sky’s life jacket had been tighter, if the rafters had ad­justed their po­si­tion in the boat cor­rectly be­fore start­ing, if the guides had been more con­fi­dent about where to per­form CPR and had com­mu­ni­ca­tions equip­ment to call for im­me­di­ate help, they won­der if Vish­n­evet­sky would have made it.

Chris­tine Lar­son, coowner of the com­pany, said Vish­n­evet­sky’s death was an ac­ci­dent. The com­pany con­ducted an in­ves­ti­ga­tion and found that the guides fol­lowed all safety pro­to­cols. White wa­ter raft­ing is a dan­ger­ous ac­tiv­ity with in­her­ent risks.

Still, Green­blatt thinks the most re­cent deadly ac­ci­dent in Oc­to­ber is proof that her boyfriend’s death didn’t change in­dus­try stan­dards as she had hoped it would.

“We didn’t want this to hap­pen again,” she said. “We knew we would see it in the news. We knew poli­cies weren’t changed.”

Green­blatt, Vish­n­evet­sky and Suastegui were three of more than one mil­lion U.S. tourists who trav­eled to Costa Rica in 2016, mak­ing up 40 per­cent of all vis­i­tors to the coun­try. Costa Rica is a top desti­na­tion for ad­ven­ture tourism, rank­ing 11th among de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, ac­cord­ing to the Ad­ven­ture Travel Trade As­so­ci­a­tion. More than half the tourists who visit Costa Rica do an ad­ven­ture ac­tiv­ity. One in 12 choose raft­ing.

But raft­ing guides work­ing in Costa Rica say the coun­try’s reg­u­la­tion in­fra­struc­ture has not evolved enough to en­sure the safety of the in­creas­ing num­ber of tourists seek­ing thrills on the rivers. The in­dus­try re­mains largely self-reg­u­lated. The reg­u­la­tions that ex­ist present loop­holes that, at best, con­fuse le­git­i­mate tour op­er­a­tors and, at worst, al­low for il­le­gal op­er­a­tors to lead raft­ing trips re­gard­less. There is no govern­ment agency in charge of policing the rivers and pun­ish­ing risky com­pa­nies. And, al­though it’s il­le­gal, many com­pa­nies use free­lance guides who get paid only if they take a tour down the river, cre­at­ing a dan­ger­ous in­cen­tive.

“The govern­ment needs to wake up,” said Phil Perez, 58, a raft­ing in­struc­tor and medic in Costa Rica who has been a guide since 1979 and worked for the U.S. Bureau of Land Man­age­ment for six years. “Right now they are do­ing noth­ing more than putting a Band-Aid on what is the real is­sue.”

SELF-REG­U­LA­TION

Tourists first climbed into leftover World War II rafts and floated down U.S. rivers for fun in the 1950s. Rules were scarce and ac­ci­dents were abun­dant, said Jeff Horn, lead out­door re­cre­ation plan­ner for the BLM in Cal­i­for­nia. Since then, the adrenalinerush-in­duc­ing ac­tiv­ity has be­come more pop­u­lar and safer.

“As peo­ple started get­ting hurt, they started to get caught up with it’s good to have a first aid kit on the boat, res­cue equip­ment,” said Horn, who has been raft­ing with the BLM for 32 years. “That evolved into a manda­tory thing.”

To­day, the U.S. de­part­ments of the In­te­rior and Agri­cul­ture (in­clud­ing BLM, Na­tional Park Ser­vice, Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice, and For­est Ser­vice) over­see U.S. raft­ing com­pa­nies that op­er­ate on rivers un­der fed­eral ju­ris­dic­tion (sim­i­lar state agen­cies over­see state rivers). A raft­ing com­pany en­ters into an in­di­vid­ual con­tract with a govern­ment agency that out­lines how guides have to be trained, what kind of equip­ment the com­pany needs to use and how often it has to re­new its per­mits. First aid and swift-wa­ter res­cue train­ing are gen­er­ally re­quired for all guides, Horn said. The agen­cies also po­lice the rivers on boats, equipped with satel­lite phones in case of emer­gen­cies, writ­ing tickets and fin­ing com­pa­nies that hire un­qual­i­fied guides or don’t have the re­quired first aid sup­plies.

When it’s too cold to raft in most places in the U.S., it’s per­fect raft­ing weather in Costa Rica. Yves Marceau, vice pres­i­dent of prod­uct at the ad­ven­ture tourism com­pany G Ad­ven­tures, said Costa Rica is among the three most pop­u­lar ad­ven­ture des­ti­na­tions for U.S. tourists, along with Machu Pic­chu in Peru and South­east Asia.

Yet, while the guide train­ing fun­da­men­tals are the same in Costa Rica, many of the pro­tec­tions in place in the U.S. don’t ex­ist there. A frac­tured over­sight sys­tem leaves room for bad ac­tors to take ad­van­tage of loop­holes and of­fer more dan­ger­ous tours at a lower price, guides said.

Cur­rently the Health Min­istry over­sees ad­ven­ture tourism com­pa­nies and is the only govern­ment agency that can shut a com­pany down. But the Health Min­istry is not fa­mil­iar with white wa­ter raft­ing equip­ment or raft­ing-spe­cific safety pro­to­cols, guides said.

Felipe Lopez, 39, owner of Au­ten­tico Ad­ven­tures raft­ing com­pany, said al­though he has to re­new his per­mit with the Health Min­istry ev­ery three years, only one in­spec­tor from the min­istry has re­viewed his raft­ing equip­ment in the last 10 years.

“We want to be the most cor­rect as pos­si­ble so we have all our back­ups ready in case an ac­ci­dent hap­pens, but they don’t come and check your stuff,” Lopez said.

Lopez, who learned raft­ing safety in the U.S. and worked as an Out­ward Bound in­struc­tor for 10 years, wants tougher en­force­ment on the rivers so tour op­er­a­tors will be forced to abide by the high­est safety stan­dards.

In the U.S., “they pull up to you in the river and ask you if you have the right gear, and you can get a ticket. If you do it a few times they take your per­mit away,” he said. “We don’t have that here. We are ask­ing for that. We need some­one check­ing the times we’re get­ting in the wa­ter ... . Some­one has to take charge and do it.”

He would also like to see the govern­ment col­lect more data about river flows, make it avail­able to the pub­lic and pun­ish com­pa­nies that lead tours un­der dan­ger­ous con­di­tions.

A river’s flow in cu­bic feet per sec­ond is one of the most im­por­tant in­di­ca­tors of safety, but a lot of rivers don’t have gauges to mea­sure that, leav­ing raft­ing com­pa­nies to rely on lines drawn on rocks rep­re­sent­ing wa­ter lev­els. Be­cause Costa Rica’s rivers are mostly fed by rain­fall, they are more likely to flash, or in­crease in level and flow in a very short pe­riod of time, than U.S. rivers, which are mostly fed by snow melt, Horn said. Guides in the U.S. rely on dream­flows.com for real-time read­ings of many rivers from U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey gauges.

Gus­tavo Al­varado, di­rec­tor of Tourism Man­age­ment for Costa Rica’s Tourism Board, said Costa Rica’s rivers are smaller and more nu­mer­ous than in the U.S. and it’s not prac­ti­cal to pa­trol them all.

Al­though the Health Min­istry over­sees the com­pa­nies, the tourism board is in charge of cer­ti­fy­ing all raft­ing guides af­ter they are trained by a sep­a­rate Costa Ri­can agency, the Na­tional Learn­ing In­sti­tute. Ev­ery two years the tourism board checks whether raft­ing com­pa­nies are us­ing only board-cer­ti­fied guides. But only com­pa­nies that are reg­is­tered with the board — a frac­tion of all raft­ing com­pa­nies — are checked, mean­ing most are not held ac­count­able for hir­ing board-cer­ti­fied guides. The tourism board, through its New York City­based PR firm NJF, de­clined to dis­close how many raft­ing guides are cer­ti­fied and if it tracks raft­ing ac­ci­dents and deaths.

Most guides who are not board cer­ti­fied carry ac­cred­i­ta­tion from other or­ga­ni­za­tions like the In­ter­na­tional Raft­ing Fed­er­a­tion, which trains and cer­ti­fies guides around the world.

Rafael Gallo, 60, hon­orary pres­i­dent of the fed­er­a­tion and owner of raft­ing com­pany Rios Trop­i­cales, wants the govern­ment to rec­og­nize train­ing from in­ter­na­tional raft­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions in­stead of try­ing to train, cer­tify and reg­u­late the in­dus­try it­self.

“It doesn’t work. How can the min­istry of health go and cer­tify a class 4 raft guide?” Gallo said. “If I’ve been in the busi­ness for 34 years, you think a health official is go­ing to know more than I do in raft­ing? There needs to be a pri­vate-pub­lic part­ner­ship.”

The lax en­force­ment al­lows some com­pa­nies to cut cor­ners. In high sea­son from De­cem­ber to March and June to Au­gust, it’s com­mon for raft­ing com­pa­nies to hire guides on a free­lance ba­sis. Lar­son, who said her com­pany hires all its guides as full­time staff, es­ti­mates that half of all raft­ing com­pa­nies use the il­le­gal free­lance guides, which can cre­ate dan­ger­ous in­cen­tives.

“A free­lance guide might be work­ing all week long and when he gets to the river he might be more likely to take a risk,” Lar­son said. “A full-time em­ployee will be more likely to use cau­tion be­cause he gets paid whether he runs the river or not.”

PER­FECT STORM

All th­ese fac­tors, com­bined with the in­her­ent risks of raft­ing, can lead to a tragedy, like the raft­ing ac­ci­dent on the Naranjo River near Costa Rica’s Pa­cific Coast last month that claimed five lives — four tourists from Mi­ami on a friend’s bach­e­lor trip and one guide.

On Oct. 20 there was a yel­low alert in the area from the na­tional safety com­mis­sion ad­vis­ing the pub­lic of heavy rain­fall. Do­mes­tic flights in the area were can­celed that day, ac­cord­ing to Al­varado. Rios Trop­i­cales and an­other com­pany called H2O de­cided not to raft on the Naranjo River.

Que­poa Ex­pe­di­tions went ahead with the raft­ing trip any­way, and the group en­tered the wa­ter around 1 p.m., height­en­ing the risk. Most com­pa­nies try to get off the rivers by 1 p.m. to avoid the fastest, most tur­bu­lent currents, guides said. Que­poa Ex­pe­di­tions did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

Within min­utes of be­ing on the river, the three rafts cap­sized and all of the pas­sen­gers were in the wa­ter try­ing to hold on to rocks to avoid drown­ing. Four tourists — Jorge Caso, An­dres De­nis, Ernesto Sierra and Ser­gio Lorenzo, the groom-to-be’s brother — and one guide, Kevin Thomp­son Reid, drowned. Fam­ily mem­bers could not be reached for this ar­ti­cle.

“They all had so much life left to live as sons, brothers, fa­thers, cousins, and friends be­fore this dev­as­tat­ing tragedy oc­curred,” wrote one of the sur­vivors, An­thony Cas­tro, in a post on the fundrais­ing site Go­FundMe.

The pres­i­dent of Costa Rica, Car­los Al­varado Que­sada, ex­pressed his con­do­lences for the fam­i­lies on Twit­ter.

Reid, the guide who died, was not cer­ti­fied by the tourism board, but he was a very ex­pe­ri­enced raft­ing guide, ac­cord­ing to Gallo, his for­mer em­ployer at Rios Trop­i­cales. The Health Min­istry de­clined to com­ment on whether Que­poa Ex­pe­di­tions was ac­cred­ited.

Green­blatt knows what the fam­i­lies of the young men who died are go­ing through and how dif­fi­cult the road ahead will be for them. In 2016, she re­turned to Texas with­out Vish­n­evet­sky. Suastegui, who said he pulled Vish­n­evet­sky’s body out of the wa­ter dur­ing the ac­ci­dent and waited hours for help to ar­rive, re­turned to Ge­or­gia com­pletely trau­ma­tized. He took time off work, had night­mares about drown­ing and could not leave his apartment for weeks at a time.

Fi­nally, around the oneyear an­niver­sary of the ac­ci­dent, he reached out to Green­blatt on Face­book. She in­vited him to a oneyear an­niver­sary me­mo­rial event, and he drove the 14 hours to Dal­las to be there. Green­blatt gave Suastegui the in­for­ma­tion he so badly needed about who Vish­n­evet­sky was: an ad­ven­tur­ous, hard-work­ing guy who made friends wher­ever he went. And Suastegui gave Green­blatt the in­for­ma­tion she so badly needed about how Vish­n­evet­sky died.

Green­blatt said she also made con­tact with Gus Lang, whose wife, Amanda Hell­man, 35, died in a 2015 raft­ing ac­ci­dent in Costa Rica dur­ing the cou­ple’s hon­ey­moon trip. “He was my sound­ing board of san­ity,” Green­blatt said about Lang. “I still talk to him.”

Green­blatt still has not re­ceived a full ex­pla­na­tion from the com­pany or the Costa Ri­can govern­ment of what hap­pened that day. A raft­ing ex­pert hired by Vish­n­evet­sky’s fam­ily to re­view Green­blatt’s GoPro footage of the ac­ci­dent said he likely died of flush drown­ing, a type of drown­ing as­so­ci­ated with rough wa­ter and the sec­ond most com­mon cause of death while raft­ing af­ter hy­pother­mia, ac­cord­ing to Amer­i­can White­wa­ter. Al­though the com­pany ad­ver­tised a $1 mil­lion li­a­bil­ity in­sur­ance pol­icy on its web­site, Vish­n­evet­sky’s fam­ily was not able to re­cover any money for the cost of get­ting his body back to the U.S.

Green­blatt and Suastegui hope that the most re­cent ac­ci­dent will be enough to change how the in­dus­try is reg­u­lated.

“It’s hard to imag­ine what jus­tice would look like for us,” Suastegui said. “The de­mand is higher for th­ese peo­ple, and they don’t have the cov­er­age for it. The reg­u­la­tions can’t keep up and con­tinue to be safe.”

Jaycee Green­blatt

Alex Suastegui, third from left, Jaycee Green­blatt, sec­ond from right, and Ed­ward Vish­n­evet­sky, right, be­fore raft­ing on the Sara­piquí River June 20, 2016.

In­sti­tuto Costa Rica de Turismo

Costa Rica is a hotspot for Amer­i­can tourists look­ing for ad­ven­ture travel, such as this white wa­ter raft­ing trip on the Sara­piquí River, a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­di­tion than the one that took Ed­ward Vish­n­evet­sky’s life.

GO­FUNDME

The groom-to-be and his friends in Costa Rica.

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