A deadly rafting trip: Family speaks out on son’s river death to prevent others
Christopher J. Santana
Christopher J. Santana
The family of a Valley Stream, New York, man who drowned Sept. 1 while rafting on the Lehigh River, wants rafting companies to improve their policies and procedures to save lives.
Family members of Christopher J. Santana spoke to the Times News about his death, charging that his life could have been saved had guides helped.
Pocono Whitewater Rafting Vice President Sky Fogal said he could not comment on the incident until the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, which investigated the drowning, releases its official report.
The commission as of now would release only the time and date of the incident, where it happened, and Santana’s name and address.
“Because of the recent nature of the incident, a full report is still being compiled from which we would glean other information, such as weather conditions,” said Communications Director Mike Parker.
According to American Whitewater, an organization that documents boating injuries and deaths, Santana, 33, died at around 1 p.m. Sept. 1 as he rafted on a Pocono Whitewater trip.
The incident happened on a stretch of the Lehigh River between Rockport and Glen Onoko. The stretch is classified as between classes II and III.
Class II river rapids are difficult, with small drops and waves. Class III river rapids are more difficult and have numerous irregular waves with drops and holes.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released 1,700 cubic feet of water per second from the Francis E. Walter Dam that morning, according to its website. A normal dam release is anywhere from 650 to 1,000 cubic feet of water per second.
The family speaks
“He was my guardian angel, my rock,” said Santana’s mother, Caroline Bonnen.
Her son worked hard in the family’s cleaning and restoration business, hiring as many struggling people as he could.
Santana’s aunt, Evelyn Bonnen, recalls him as lighthearted and kind.
“He wrote on a board in his office, ‘thank you God for everything you gave me,’ ” she said. “He was a good son. To see him die right in front of her. …”
Caroline Bonnen arranged the trip because her family needed a break from their hectic work schedules.
“My kids are adventurous,” she said, so she decided on whitewater rafting.
At Pocono Whitewater, Caroline Bonnen said she attended a preparation session.
“A guy was talking about rules and regulations, but you could hardly hear the guy talk,” she said.
With about 100 people in the outside area, she said they should have used a loudspeaker.
Caroline Bonnen said the talk was “less about safety” than about how to handle personal belongings on the raft.
“They don’t check you for what your wear, Christopher had water shoes on (jet ski shoes),” she said.
She said there were nine people in their group.
“We were all squeezed in there,” she said.
Santana’s brother, Bradley Vercosa, said the raft was designed for six people.
Two of her adult children fell out when the raft went over a rock, and were picked up by people in another raft.
Despite that, “We were laughing and having a good time,” Caroline Bonnen said.
With nine people aboard, their raft was very heavy, and they fell behind, she said.
The fun day turned terrifying fast.
“Christopher was in front. He fell off when we hit a rock,” she said. His foot then got wedged into the rocks when he tried to get back into the raft.
The raft, carried by the current, kept going.
“I was screaming, ‘stop the boat’ ” she said.
Her son Matthew Bonnen tried twice to get Christopher, but couldn’t because of the strong current.
“The water was very rough. We hit a rock and he fell off. All of a sudden he got stuck,” Matthew Bonnen said.
“We were the last raft. It just seems like they weren’t prepared for this at all,” he said.
Trying to survive
Matthew jumped in, but couldn’t reach his brother; he swam to the shoreline, and then tried again.
“I kind of touched his vest,” Matthew Bonnen said.
“He was trying to survive, but he couldn’t. The water kept bringing him forward,” Caroline Bonnen said.
“Someone still could have grabbed my son. As my son is pinned in there, no one is helping.”
She said guides called 911; an hour and some minutes later, the ambulance and firetruck appeared.
The family, which believes Santana’s death could have been prevented, is filing a lawsuit against Pocono Whitewater, said Evelyn Bonnen.
“We don’t want to stop rafting, but we want to know the safety protocols. What is your responsibility to us?” she said.
“We had no idea what was coming,” Evelyn Bonnen said.
We want their safety procedures improved, Vercosa said.
“There was not one attempt made to save my brother. There were no steps taken to get him out. No one tried to get out, no one tried to throw a life vest or a life saver,” he said.
“We want policies changed so no more lives are lost,” Caroline Bonnen said. “Thirty-three years I had my boy, and now my boy is gone.”
“It seemed like they were understaffed, Vercosa said.
There were around 20 rafts in the group, and three guides, the family says.
Vercosa arrived about two and a half hours after the drowning.
“We had about 20-something boats, only one girl in front guiding us and two guys in back, an older guy and a younger guy.”
Vercosa, who asked the guides what their policies and procedures were in such situations, said they seemed uncaring.
“They did not ever go out of their (raft),” he said.
“I want people to know everything that happened to my brother could have been prevented. Companies don’t care about our safety, just making money,” Matthew Bonnen said.
“There is no safety in the rafting company. They could have prevented all of this. They let my brother drown. They should have hired someone who knew what they were doing,” he said.
“He had his hands up before he drowned. He could still hear me. I kept telling him to keep his hands up,” Matthew said. “No one helped him at all.”
Pocono Whitewater policies
“The Lehigh River is a naturally flowing river with inherent risks,” Vice President Sky Fogal said. “It is important to realize that this and any natural body of water is not a man-made ride, and as such it can be unpredictable.”
Fogal said that the four rafting companies that use the Lehigh — Pocono Whitewater, Jim Thorpe; Whitewater Rafting Adventures, Nesquehoning; Jim Thorpe River Adventures, Lehighton; and Whitewater Challengers, Weatherly — send more than 100,000 rafters down the river each year.
The trips typically begin in early spring and end around Oct. 1, depending on the weather.
The number of rafts on each trip “depends on the trip and the section of water. We average about 20 boats on full trips,” he said.
“Traditionally, the model on the Lehigh is four guides per trip. This is standard with all the companies,” Fogal said.
He said the guides go through an “extensive in-house training process and have skill-based pay depending on other training they might have completed elsewhere.
“Every rafter gets a waiver, then they get a life jacket that is fitted by a trained guide. Then they go to a safety briefing before finally leaving the rafting center to one of our three launch points,” Fogal said.
The company has staff that speak a range of languages for non-English speaking rafters.