Manuel Gallegos of Albuquerque was just looking for a fun way to cool off.
A Sunday afternoon tubing trip down the Animas River was the ticket, until Gallegos fell off his tube below Smelter Rapid and had to be rescued by alert boaters. CPR and treatment by emergency responders restored his pulse and blood pressure, but he did not recover. Gallegos died on Thursday.
The questions have come quickly, focused on the incident and on the larger picture of recreation and responsibility:
‰ What was he doing on that section of the river on a tube? ‰ Why was he not wearing a personal flotation device (life vest)? ‰ Why are PFDs not required on the river by law?Lobsang Wangchuck, tour director for the Gaden Shartse monks who recently visited Durango, witnessed tubers in trouble near the Rotary Park bridge. Upset, he went straight to the Durango Police Department with the same questions.
“I suggest the city council …enforce a mandatory life vest ordinance,” he wrote in a letter to the editor, “to protect the tubers, boaters and the beautiful city of Durango.”
Welcome to Colorado, where we are required to wear seat belts in autos but where seat belts are not even installed on school buses. It is a state renowned for its breathtaking motorcycle routes, where wearing a helmet while riding is strictly optional. A place where personal freedom is celebrated, and set high on a pedestal next to personal responsibility.
But the questions remain. Should more be done to ensure river safety on the Animas? Or is a tuber’s safety his or her own responsibility?
Establishing some rules would not be unprecedented. In Washington state, there is a stiff fine for boating or floating without an approved PFD, and that includes tubes. Since 2015, neighboring Nebraska has defined inner tubes, formerly seen as flotation devices, as vessels; PFDs are required.
Colorado law requires all vessels to have at least one approved PFD for each person on board. But in Colorado, a tube, or other cheap inflatable, is not a vessel.
The city of Durango encourages both tubing and river safety in an informative Animas River flyer posted on the city’s website. It recommends approved PFDs, helmets and secure footgear for everyone. It also encourages tubers to park at the Transit Center or Schneider Park, ride the trolley for free to the Community Recreation Center (with tubes deflated), and then fill the tubes behind the Rec Center for a float.
The unofficial town tubing route runs from the 33rd Street put-in down to the Ninth Street bridge. Tubers are strongly encouraged (the flyer reads) but not required to leave the river at Ninth Street. Curiously, the detailed information on the flyer is not posted at the put-ins or at the Rec Center.
Should an exit at Ninth Street be mandatory for tubers? At the least, should warning signs be posted on the bridge?
The city flyer also reads: “Tubing is recommended in lower water (under 800 cfs) on the Animas River in July and August.” But this year, runoff has yet to subside to below that level. When Gallegos was injured, the river was running over 900 cfs.
Should tubes and other flimsy inflatables not be allowed at water levels over 800 cfs?
Other municipalities have imposed PFD requirements for people riding tubes within their city limits, and on rivers more tame, and warmer, than our Animas. The time for Durango to do the same may be now.
Does the death of a man whose float on an unfamiliar river suddenly turned tragic deserve such a response?
These are questions that deserve answers; we would like to hear what you think.