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, 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 raft 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 communication equipment to call for immediate help, they wonder if Vishnevetsky would have made it.
Christine Larson, co-owner 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 of tourists who visit Costa Rica do an adventure activity. One in twelve 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 only get paid 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 Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the U.S. for six years. “Right now they are doing nothing more than putting a Band-Aid on what is the real issue.”
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 adrenaline-rush-inducing activity has become more popular and more safe.
“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 nor 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 that 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 City-based 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, even though it’s illegal. Larson, who said her company hires all its guides as full-time staff, estimates that half of all rafting companies use 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, he only gets paid if he works that day,” Larson said. “A full-time employee will be more likely to use caution because he gets paid whether he runs the river or not.”
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 story.
“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 one-year anniversary of the accident, he reached out to Greenblatt on Facebook. She invited him to a one-year 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.”
QUESTIONS TO ASK RAFTING COMPANIES
Fatal rafting accidents can happen even with the most experienced guides and strict safety protocols. Tourists should communicate directly with the rafting company, not a booking agent, and ask companies these questions:
▪ How long has this company been working on the river of the tour?
▪ Is the company permitted by the Health Ministry?
▪ What are the company’s requirements for guides?
▪ Are the guides certified by the tourism board and trained by the National Learning Institute? If not, what training and certifications do they have?
▪ Are all of the guides employed full time?
▪ How does the company decide whether to cancel a tour? Do guides have any hard and fast rules about water flow and level?
▪ What is the company’s emergency plan in case a raft flips?