The Day It Rained Rocks
A Real Story of Heroes and Survival
Miraculously, 31 of us survived and were evacuated from the Grand Canyon by helicopter on 7/15/21.
Day 3 of our 8-day trip. This was the largest evacuation in Grand Canyon history.
Sadly, one young woman, Rebecca, did not survive. Others were seriously injured,
including one of the guide-heroes, Kristen O’Niell. She was very seriously injured while evacuating us.
I included these News links below, even though they are not accurate. They weren’t there, so they had no on-site photos. There was no car. We were not camped in a slot canyon. The slot canyon was ¼ mile away. The known campsite was about 150 feet upstream from the normally dry rim drainage. This was not just a flash flood. It was a torrent of rain, hail and wind which caused a mud and rockslide. It would have killed us all, if not for our guides.
The trip started on Monday, 7/11/21. I drove through the Four Corners area, made a turn at 160 from 89 and was gearing up the old VW camper I was driving when I passed two hitchhikers. I usually will stop for hitchers, but I was late. I felt immediately guilty, and thought I just passed two Indians… On Indian land. I’m going on a life-threatening raft trip… On Indian land! I don’t need the bad Mojo. I turned around to pick them up. I was late already anyway.
Joshua, the hitchhiker now riding shotgun, was escorting his sister Isabelle to a job interview in Flagstaff. I made a stop for him. He sang two Navajo songs for me. He directed me to where I needed to be and wanted to walk the rest. Before I got around the van to wish them luck, they were gone! Isabelle left some native incense.
My girlfriend and I had reserved this raft trip through the Grand Canyon almost two years ago. Susan couldn’t make it due to a death in the family. My daughter Heather (35 and tougher than she looks. Usually too busy to see me, unless I schedule weeks in advance), somehow found the time to take Susan’s place. After all, it was "The trip of a lifetime".
90% of the Colorado River through The Grand Canyon is flat water. We were on huge 36’ rafts with motors, so we didn’t even have to paddle. They seemed impossible to flip, but I heard they do. The water comes out of the bottom of the dam at 48 degrees. So rafting is two temperature extremes. Either we were baking in the sun at 95 degrees, or we’d go through rapids, get splashed and be freezing for several minutes. The NPS officially states that survival without a life preserver is ‘unlikely’.
Wednesday 7/13/21, about 4:30 P.M: After our second day of moderate rapids, we made camp at Tatahatso Wash, mile 37.5, a known, marked campsite for many years. We weren’t even in the Grand Canyon yet. Everybody else set up their tents. I was expecting afternoon rains so, (trying to be smarter than most) I was waiting to set up until after a possible rain, so I would be dry.
By 5 pm the clouds had built up, and it started raining big drops. Everybody ran to their tents. When the hail started, I felt that I should find a rock for shelter. Damn! Only small rocks and bushes. I had to go about 100’ downstream, near the porta-potty, until I found a 7’ overhanging rock, which I crouched against. This was about 40’ from the “normally dry” rim drainage.
About 5:10 P.M : Torrential rains, hail, winds with sideways rain. Then harder rain. It must have dumped 2 inches in 20 minutes. The hurricane type winds were blowing mostly upstream and into the canyon wall, SE I believe. However, the winds shifted rapidly with large hail. My overhang was being hailed on sideways, so I scooted around, into the more open, but less battered side.
Maggie and Liam, the two captains, were outside, getting people out of low areas. They walked by me to save the porta-potty. They yelled,” Get to your tent!” I yelled, “I didn’t set up yet. I’m fine. I’ll wait it out.” They kind of insisted, but I had no place to go. I couldn’t go into somebody else’s tent this wet. How rude. I was getting cold and wished I had a tent. But with the winds and hail, I was sure most of the tents were down, anyway.
I was wearing my bathing suit, rain jacket, water sandals and sunglasses. I also had my insulated metal coffee cup, filled with wine, and my work camera. My waterproof, shock-proof camera. The wind changed, so my rock overhang offered 80% protection once again. Liam kept coming back. He was standing in the hail, looking up at the canyon wall and dry drainage. I yelled at him that he was crazy and to come under the rock, but he wouldn’t. He just continued staring up.
I was leaning against my rock and would sneak a glance at the drainage. I knew I was in a dangerous spot. The path between the old porta-potty location and camp had built up with a few inches of water and started flowing. This new stream was 18 inches higher in elevation than I was! Well, I’m no civil engineer, but I thought, “How unusual. I’m probably gonna get really wet soon.”
The rim drainage started flowing, then grew fast, then EXPLODED! When Liam yelled, "RUN", I did not hesitate (I haven't run that fast for 40 years. Didn’t know I still could).
We ran through camp yelling, "RUN!". I didn't know where we were running. I thought we were running from the rim drainage. Then he yelled, "To the boats!" We ran, yelling: ”Run. To the boats!" No shoes or clothes on? It didn't matter. Everybody had to RUN! NOW! RUN!
While running for my life, I glanced up through my sunglasses. It looked like red-brown smoke descending upon us, fast. 150' along the canyon wall and 75' out, with a brown swirl left of center!
Still running, my mind raced, thinking:
That brown smoke is unique and beautiful.
I wish I had time to photograph it.
I wonder what the red brown is.
I wonder if it will hurt us.
Then the raindrops turned into huge drops of mud. The hail turned to gravel, then stones!
It was like the Wrath of a GOD. Poseidon, Earthshaker?
We were all being STONED! And it was going to get worse! Fast.
It seemed like the whole mountain was falling onto us. Survival seemed unlikely.
We ran through camp, yelling, being pelted.
Most tent dwellers were dumbfounded but got out and ran without question.
I got to the top of the beach when I thought:
Heather, my daughter!
Maybe she made it to the boat.
I must be sure. If I go down to the boats, it's pelting so bad, I probably won't be able to make it back.
So, I ran back through camp, yelling "Heather!” and "Run!" (About a 10 second delay).
She was just getting out of her friend's tent. I grabbed her arm, and we ran as fast as we could, yelling to everybody along the way.
The large drops of mud made the air turn red brown. It was incredible and disorienting. It’s difficult to describe how hellish it was. Unlivable. Like opening your eyes in muddy water, but we were still breathing. While being pommeled by stones. It seemed like the end of the world. At least for us.
When we got to the boat, we couldn't see 5 feet away!
I couldn't see anybody, even though about 14 were on board.
I saw a hole between 2 metal boxes, told Heather, and shoved her head down into it.
I got my head and body over her, with one arm and my insulated metal cup over my head.
(It still had wine in it. Can't believe I was holding it that whole time).
Heather wanted to see what was going on, but I kept shoving her head down, saying it’s not over yet.
Due to Liam’s quick and assertive judgment, the time that elapsed between when he first shouted, “RUN,” and when we got to the boats was about 1 minute.
We hunkered down and prayed, as large rocks pinged off the metal containers.
My back was pelted more than 50 times by stones from over 1", up to 6” in diameter."
The pelting lasted another 2 to 3 minutes until it seemed to let up. I felt totally helpless. Hoping for an outside force to save us. When I was brave enough to raise my head, I saw that we and both boats were in the middle of the river! We had to get 200 feet away from the beach be
I was amazed. I didn't even know we were moving. The guides got us on board, started the motors, cut the ropes and got us 200 feet away, safely in the river. Good thing we were on huge rafts with motors. No time for life preservers, shoes, phones, etc. We had just what we were wearing, which was now soaked with the freezing water of the Colorado and covered in the mud from the canyon walls.
At the same time, Tim, another guest who was closest to the boats, saw the mud and rocks coming and got his family to the boats quickly.
He threw people into the front, open metal storage bin, while being pelted. He then put the big metal lid on his back and covered everyone within, while getting pelted with big rocks hundreds of times.
Tim is a hero.
Don, another guest, was covering his wife with his body. She was covering a young boy. He was pelted by rocks quite severely. He was awake and aware but couldn’t move much. He was lucky, only breaking 6 ribs. Another hero.
The same large rock which crushed Kristen’s pelvis, punctured a flotation section.
A two-foot rock bounced off the engine.
One rock took out a 3/4" chunk of my hip. (The cold muddy water must have stopped the bleeding.
Too much time passed to get stitches). I now have several rips in my rain jacket.
(Bonus Q: How large a rock to make a 1 ½” star rip through Gortex, with my back as the underlayment?).
27 out of 32 made it to the boats in about 1 minute. A miracle.
Those guides are HEROES!
If delayed another minute, most of us would have been dead!
The normally dry drainage was now a monster. A raging 40’ deluge of debris filled red-brown water, splashing debris hundreds of feet. The river was a muddy mess with large logs and debris. About 20 bags were swirling in the eddy below camp. Camp was covered in a brown cloud of water and debris. It looked like camp was washed away. Upriver was a brown cloud. The whole canyon was small waterfalls. There was only one area of raging torrent: just below our camp.
As the torrent continued, somebody on a raft saw life on shore.
Captain Maggie, on the other boat, went back for the stranded rafters. I’m sure she did much more. Another Hero.
Joel was separated from the group when he and his mother Nancy got hit by a flying tent on the way to the boats. Nancy was washed into the river. Joel got low up against the canyon wall and covered his head with his shoes. He could not see his mother amid the mud and rock downpour.
Tim’s parents were still in the only tent, which was still standing, near the canyon wall. Maggie rescued all three from the camp.
On the most somber note, Rebecca died. She wanted to camp further away, downstream of the drainage.
Heather walked down there with Rebecca and luckily decided to stay at camp central, near my tent.
Miracle grandma Nancy, 78 (Joel’s mom) got knocked down and washed into the Colorado river. She was stuck in an eddy, upstream, along with dry bags and gear.
She grabbed onto a bag for flotation, circled around the eddy many times before she got close enough to the shore to grab some branches and get back on land. I believe she was still circling, unseen, while Maggie made the rescue of the others on shore.
Soaking and alone, Nancy went through any remaining bags for dry clothes, water and food.
She was alone all night, presumed dead.
She was rescued the next day by another raft company.
We were overjoyed when she hoped off the raft at our survival camp.
5 people were severely injured. 30 of us spent the cool night in survival mode. The guide's clothes were luckily still on the boats, and they gave them freely to the guests. Most of us tried to sleep in the 5 tents which were still on the boats. Several of us couldn’t sleep.
The National Park Service and their paramedics did an outstanding job.
They helicoptered two Paramedics down, who spent the entire night, stabilizing the injured.
They brought MRI’s as food, but most of us were too wired to eat.
They started evacuating the most injured the next day.
Then they decided to helicopter everybody out. It was a beautiful flight, about 20 minutes.
The NPS brought us inside, clothed and fed us. They also gave us a nice official government letter, explaining that we may have lost all ID, etc.
It made me proud to be an American and pay taxes.
I can't say enough good things about the guides.
They saved my life twice. More importantly, they saved my daughter’s life.
If delayed another minute, most of us would not have survived.
Liam and Maggie were outside in the torrent, assessing the situation. Keeping their clients safe.
Liam was standing in the hail looking up, so knew when we had to evacuate, IMMEDIATELY. It was the bravest thing I’ve ever witnessed. Then starting the engine and cutting the lines to get us to safety.
Liam's wife Kristen, a guide, helped evacuate and was going to the back of the boat. The rock which punctured a floatation section hit Kristen first and crushed her pelvis. She was slipping into the river, when Liam grabbed her and pulled her on, while backing up the boat at full speed.
There are undoubtedly many more heroic stories and viewpoints of this incident. I wish I saw them all. I’d like to hear them all. The guides did everything they were supposed to, and much more. With a job like a river or climbing guide, saving a life may be part of the job. But this incident showed outstanding bravery, training and definitive action. They didn’t hide like we did. They did everything they had to, to save us.
I wish there was a way to honor the guides, without making the raft company seem bad. They were not.
The raft company and guides were outstanding. Afterwards, they did everything to make us comfortable.
They gave us nice hotel rooms and offered counseling to anybody who needed it.
Liam, Maggie and the other guides are Heroes.
I would like to help. I'm grateful to be alive.
I used to think there were no heroes anymore.
Here are some real heroes.
That’s why I had to tell the story.
Did turning around for the hitcher’s, the Navajo chants and the prayers help?
There’s always room for doubters. I think of it like this:
If anything would have happened differently, many more of us would have died.
As for me, I’d do the same thing. I’m glad I was there.
Randolph J. Harris aka: Adventure Man
Harris Fire Forensics LLC