Kayaker recounts dramatic Eagle River rescue
Clutching to a paddle that he had somehow jammed into debris beneath the frigid, rushing water, pinned and unable to free himself from his submerged kayak, Steve Rossberg wondered if anyone could hear the distress calls from his police whistle. After 90 minutes in the icy water, body numb, he could feel his will to survive ebbing. Then, with his head barely above water, he thought he saw someone on shore making a cell phone call. “I’ve got to hang on,” he thought. “I’ve got to hang on.”
These were some of the thoughts racing through Rossberg’s mind Sept. 16 after his kayak became lodged in a sweeper along the lower portion of Eagle River. He was experienced on Alaska’s rivers and had good equipment. But as he struggled to remain conscious and keep his focus, he was haunted by a single thought: “I underestimated the river.”
An avid outdoorsman, Rossberg was kayaking a three-mile stretch of Eagle River Sunday afternoon between the Hiland and Glenn Highway bridges. The river is tame in comparison to some of the other rivers he has run. He thought paddling the river alone would be no problem. He was wrong. This year’s high water has brought considerable debris down the river which only weeks ago was responsible for the death of two female canoeists.
At about one quarter mile from his pull out point at the Eagle River Campground, he made a critical error by paddling underneath a tree that was arching over the water. His kayak became stuck under a large log and he ended up pinned.
“There are two critical decisions that were wrong,” Rossberg says. “One was kayaking alone and two was going under that arched tree. It is good to have another person there to help with judging things — to bounce things off of. If I was with my paddle buddy, I probably would not have gone under that tree.”
He tried a number of things to free himself, including cutting himself out of the kayak with a knife, but finally resigned himself to the fact that he was not going to be able to get loose.
“I reached a point where I realized I needed to focus on the task at hand,” he says. “Conserve my energy, keep my head above water, breathe and blow my whistle.”
Initially he could see his kayak — it was about two inches under water. As time ticked on, the water pressure pulled it down and he was soon submerged up to his neck. He was in the water for 90 minutes, bracing himself with his paddle and blowing his whistle and losing strength. Then he saw something on shore. “The image is burned in my head,” Rossberg recalls. “I saw a guy in a blue coat and he was on a white phone making a call.”
A wave of hope washed over him. Maybe help was on the way.
And it was. The caller reached 911 and the dispatcher quickly contacted Eagle River’s Ladder 11, a branch of the Anchorage Fire Department. Responders immediately sprang into action, launched a boat from the campground and in minutes went upstream to the site. By the time they reached Rossberg, hypothermia had set in. They needed to get him out of the water within minutes. The rescue team had to take a chainsaw to the large tree to free him. By the time the responders pulled him out of the water it had been two hours since he had been pinned and his core body temperature had fallen to 90 degrees. He was quickly evacuated to an Anchorage hospital and has since made a full recovery.
Rossberg is a drilling manager for BP Alaska. Humbled by the experience, he recently held a town hall meeting at the company’s Anchorage office to explain the incident to employees and to properly thank the rescue team. He expressed his deep gratitude to the men, more than a dozen in all, who responded and saved his life in perilous conditions.
Following a discussion of the incident by the Ladder 11 team, one of the rescuers, Corey Roberts, said to Rossberg: “I don’t know if you knew at the time how close you were to dying, but I think you do now.”
Rossberg’s message to his co-workers was clear: “Learn from my mistakes.
“Don’t underestimate the risk. Prepare for the worst. Ask yourself do you have the right equipment, are you mentally and physically capable of surviving the worst case scenario?”
Rossberg said the rescuers’ high degree of training, their quick response, his training in the military, his remaining focused at the task at hand, having proper gear (he wore a dry suit with two layers underneath) having a bright green helmet and a two dollar whistle are what saved his life.
When asked if he will go kayaking again, he replied: “The doctor told me I’ve been sidelined for 10 days. When I do go back out, it won’t be alone.”
Members of the Eagle River Ladder 11 crew and others who participated in the rescue:
Eagle River (Station #11)
Senior Captain, Jeff Bayless (on the boat, Red helmet)
Engineer, Corey Roberts (on the boat, Black helmet)
Paramedic, Craig Paulus (on the boat, Yellow helmet)
Paramedic, Ian Buness
Paramedic, Mark Johnson
Firefighter, Mike Dennis
(This is the vehicle that is proposed to be eliminated due to budget cuts).
Captain, Al Kara
Engineer, Ken Perkins
Paramedic, Tom Alexander
Engineer, Bob VanDussen (Boat Driver)
Muldoon (Station #6)
Paramedic, Kevin Logan
Firefighter, Mike Turner
From Station # 4:
EMS Supervisor, Steve Poggi
From Station #14:
Battalion Chief, Tom Preston