Son Helps Save 75-year-old Father After Rafting Accident

By Alex Korkishko

After Alex Korkishko’s raft hit a rock, Alex’s 75-year-old father fell into a cold, rushing Alaskan river. It was up to Alex, his friend Bryan and son Max to come to the rescue, and fortunately, they were prepared. He shared the story with Garmin.

The day the incident occurred, we were finishing our seventh day of an 8-day rafting trip down Lake Creek River in Alaska. The trip had been amazing. We had two rafts — three people in my friend Bryan’s boat and four people, including me, in my boat.

That day we had just passed the most difficult rapid on the river, Rock Garden, and were excited to get to Yenlo camp early. My dad and my friend, Hen, were sitting in the front, and my son, Max, was on the rear gear pile. We were only about 400 yards from our campsite when our raft hit a rock sideways, tipping my boat just enough to dump my two front passengers into the rushing river downstream. My dad and Hen went for a swim.

I’ve been rafting for more than 20 years. I’ve done many rivers, taken rescue classes and participated in rescues, but nothing can truly prepare you for watching your 75-year-old father fall into a cold, rushing Alaskan river. The first seconds were crucial. A quick glance at Hen revealed he was staying afloat, but a look at my dad gave me chills I will never forget. He was panicking, scared and bobbing up and down underwater. I yelled for my 18-year-old son — who has been a river rat since 5 years old and knows the rescue procedures — to help, but instinct and love for his grandpa kicked in, and he leapt into the river to save my dad.

Max tried his hardest to grab his grandpa, but with no success. So at that point, I had three swimmers in the river: my son, Hen, and my dad, who at that point was drowning. Though I knew the first rule of rescue is to not jump in after swimmers, what do you do when it’s your own father and he is suffering? I leapt into the river, leaving my raft empty.

While my son was rescue swimming to our raft and Hen was still bobbing in the current, I finally caught up to my dad and got ahold of his life jacket. As Bryan was catching up to us in his raft, I was trying to keep my dad’s head above water, while looking for boulders to beach him on. The current was very strong, and we ended up swimming another 20 to 30 yards before I was able to pull my dad onto a boulder in the middle of the river. My son caught up to our raft and self-rescued.

I started asking my dad questions to see if he was coherent; his answers were very slow and muffled — hypothermia was setting in, and he was fading fast. To make matters worse, his leg had gotten stuck on a rock, which was keeping him half underwater. I asked him to fight and keep breathing while I tried to make a dire decision between staying on that boulder or getting him to shore. Eventually my dad stopped answering my questions, and his breathing slowed. I had to do something.

Life or Death

That day was rainy and around 57 degrees. We had waders and wool layering on, but the cold water was getting to us. I decided I needed to get my dad to shore and out of the cold water, so I told my dad I loved him and that he needed to keep breathing as I pulled him on top of me and rolled him off the boulder and back into the river.

I was exhausted at this point, but I kicked as hard as I possibly could to get out of the current, dragging his body to shore. Finally, I felt rocks under my feet. I was able to stand up and pull him on the boulders, though still partly in the water. At that point, he wasn’t breathing and was beginning to turn purple. I feared that was the end and felt shame and despair. Panic was setting in as I tried to wake him and start CPR.

Then I heard Bryan’s voice. He had made it to us but had a grim look on his face as he assessed the situation. We both knew we had to get my dad fully out of the water and on flatter ground.

With Bryan’s help, we pulled my dad’s limp body fully onto the rocks, and Bryan started doing compressions, and I did the breaths. Bryan is a strong man, but my dad’s chest cavity is quite large, and it took all he had to push the 3” to 4” into my dad’s chest.

As we were performing CPR, Bryan yelled to Max to get the inReach® device. Max was still in my raft — which had got hung up on rocks just 10’ from my dad — and was swapping oars in case we had to rush down river. I always have the inReach with me. It’s a great device that allows satellite messaging anywhere in the world, but I never knew I would ever have to use the SOS function on it. That dire day was upon us.

Max pushed the button, and the inReach chirped. Within a minute we had a message back: “What is your emergency?” It was the first moment of relief since we hit the rock. While Max managed the inReach, my dad finally gargled, spit out water and was able to take a few shallow breaths. Bryan and I rejoiced. Bryan asked my dad to squeeze his finger, and, sure enough, he slightly nudged Bryan’s hand. We had a response! By that point my dad had been unresponsive for about 5 to 7 minutes. The human body is an amazing thing when it comes to survival.

The color started coming back to my dad’s face, but he still wasn’t able to talk or open his eyes. Bryan, Mark (from Bryan’s boat), Max and I started getting my dad into dry clothes, all while providing the description of the emergency, patient’s name and age to the Garmin International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC) staff. While messaging us, the IERCC staff also contacted my wife, who was my primary emergency contact, and updated her about the situation. They were amazing at communicating and keeping us and my wife in the loop and informed. They even called my wife on the phone every 20 minutes, which she greatly appreciated.

Once we got my dad stripped of his waders and into some dry wool, we decided that staying on the rocky shore wasn’t a good idea, and we had to make it to camp in case a rescue would be coming. We pulled the raft closer to dad, and it took all four of us to get him into the bow of the boat. When we made it to Yenlo camp, Max rushed to get the sleeping bags out and started setting up tents for warmth. Bryan pulled up minutes after and helped me get my dad into the tent.

My dad was breathing, but his breaths were short, and he kept wanting to fall asleep. Hypothermia was setting in, and we were afraid that ribs could have been broken during CPR, which could cause pneumothorax. Shortly thereafter, my dad stopped shivering and started closing his eyes — a bad turn of events in the case of hypothermia. We needed a helicopter evacuation and notified the IERCC staff.

That day, planes and helicopters weren’t flying due to weather. We were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to come for at least a day, but as that thought crossed our mind, we got a message back: “Heli is inbound, ETA 25 mins.”

Max and I took turns keeping my dad awake, Bryan made hot tea for him, and Mark gave up all his dry and warm clothes for Hen and my dad. Hen was getting minor hypothermia as well, so we had two patients to deal with. As the 25-minute ETA time came about, we heard the rotating blades as a low-flying Black Hawk came over the treetops. What a sight it was!

Two hours after pushing the button, we had a Black Hawk evacuating my dad from the middle of nowhere in Alaska. The chopper circled around to look for a place to land and came down on top of a small rocky island in the river. Three soldiers jumped out — just like in the movies — and one of them, a paramedic, headed our way. We were in awe. The paramedic approached us, introduced himself and, in an assertive and polite manner, took complete charge of the situation. He popped into my dad’s tent, took my dad’s vitals and asked questions. It gave us hope.

The decision was made to hoist my dad out instead of trying to carry him to the helicopter. The paramedic did a fantastic job organizing and running the rescue. He stayed in close radio communication with the helicopter, gave us tasks to prepare my dad for the evacuation and kept us calm all at the same time. Those guys are amazing.

At that point, the adrenaline had run its course for my dad, and he was in a lot of pain and couldn’t move, stand up or turn. The chopper came down to drop the harness gear and was so big that it blew all our gear and tents across the shore. (Note to self: Do not set up tents if a rescue helicopter is coming.) The paramedic put the harness on my dad, assured him it was going to be OK and lifted him up into the air. All I could do was stand there in awe and watch my dad being taken by the rescuers. We had decided for my son to go with my dad to the hospital. By the time the helicopter came back down to get my son, my dad was warmed up by heated blankets, had an IV going and had full color coming back to his face.

A day later my dad was discharged from the hospital. No broken ribs, no pneumothorax and no major trauma. He had a bruised rib cage and minor damage to his heart. The doctor at the hospital said that my dad was lucky to have a strong person (Bryan) there to perform CPR correctly, otherwise it’s possible my dad wouldn’t still be here with us today.

I am thankful for Bryan, who was by my side; Mark, who made my dad feel comfortable; my brave son, who went from 18 to 30 years old in a matter of minutes; Hen and Len, who did everything possible to make it through the ordeal and the Alaskan National Guard Air Force Search and Rescue for performing an outstanding job rescuing my dad.

A few days later I kept asking myself, should I not have triggered an SOS? But every time I question myself, I feel thankful that I had the inReach with me and that I had those awesome people at the IERCC to keep me sane and give me hope. If it had been broken ribs and punctured lungs, my dad would’ve only had a few hours to live. But inReach did what Garmin said it would do: provide rescue when it was needed. I’ve carried the device with me for many years, but going through this experience reiterated that I will never leave it behind on my future adventures.

Accidents will happen — no matter how professional we are — and having “just in case” gear, such as the inReach device, is great insurance.

NOTICE: To access the Iridium satellite network for live tracking and messaging, including SOS capabilities, an active satellite subscription is required. Some jurisdictions regulate or prohibit the use of satellite communications devices. It is the responsibility of the user to know and follow all applicable laws in the jurisdictions where the device is intended to be used.