July 21st, 2011
02:51 PM ET

Yosemite tragedy underscores dangers of deceptive rivers

The Merced River's unusual force for this time of year made wading near a waterfall particularly deadly for three Yosemite visitors.

Three hikers are presumed dead after being swept over Vernal Fall, a 317-foot waterfall at Yosemite National Park, on Tuesday, according to a National Park Service news release.

Witnesses said the visitors climbed over a guardrail to put their feet in the water about 25 feet from the waterfall's edge. The hikers have been identified as Ramina Badal, 21, and Hormiz David, 22, both of Modesto, California; and Ninos Yacoub, 27, of Turlock, California.

Park officials announced Wednesday that they were presuming the visitors to be dead and will intensify search efforts as soon as the  river reaches a level low enough to look for bodies.

The Mist Trail, where the visitors were hiking, sees about 1,500 guests each day, according to the Park Service. In May, another hiker slipped from the popular trail into the Merced and drowned. Counting Tuesday's accident, there have been six water-related deaths at Yosemite this year.

Western rivers have been at record levels this summer due to large snow packs and a cool spring.

At this point in the year, the Merced would typically be at about a “trickle” at Vernal Fall, said Dave Steindorf, California stewardship director for American Whitewater. Instead, the water is still gushing at levels that are rarely seen past June. Steindorf said this is great news for experienced paddlers but can create especially dangerous situations for hikers, bathers and waders who are less familiar with river hazards.

“Walking out into a river, if you’re up to your knees, that’s about as far as you can go with being able to maintain your footing, even with just moderate force,” Steindorf said.

Steindorf pointed to U.S. Geological Survey data that say the historic median level for the Merced just below Vernal Fall is 298 cubic feet per second. Right now, it’s at 1300 CFS. That the Vernal Fall races over a solid piece of slick granite compounds the area’s danger, he said.

“When you get this late in the season and people are used to those rivers being a trickle, they don’t understand how powerful they can be,” Steindorf said. “People wouldn’t consider walking out into a blizzard without any clothes on, but unfortunately, people will go into a river that’s higher than normal and not have life jackets or really the ability or the skill to avoid (accidents).”

No matter how forceful or gentle the flow of the Merced, Steindorf said, he would never recommend entering a river above Vernal Fall.

“Getting in any river above a significant hazard. You have to exercise even more caution, and the right answer is that you shouldn’t get in the water,” he said. “One of the big messages here is (to) provide some education on what is safe.”

Yosemite places guardrails and multilingual signs in places that are hazardous, but deciding to heed those warnings is a decision left up to individual visitors, Kari Cobb, a Yosemite Park ranger, said Wednesday.

"Visitors that want to go around guardrails ... it's up to them," Cobb said. "It's something that does happen, and it's completely up to the visitor to know what safety concerns are around and take responsibility for their own actions.”

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Filed under: California • Hikers • Nature • Travel • U.S. • Uncategorized
soundoff (170 Responses)
  1. Terence Leung

    Hard way to learn a lesson. Oh well.

    July 21, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • TIM

      TERENCE LEUNG : U are an ignorant worthless waste of space in this world. How can you say "Oh well" to a young girl who went to take a photo who accidentally slipped over the edge when 2 other young adults went to save her and slipped in after each other. This is a tragedy these were good church kids who were studying to help people in the medical field with good families. you on the other hand are just an evil lonely hateful person. so tell me what lesson did they learn by dying and falling 30 stories to their death ?

      July 21, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • C Mac Diddy

      These "good Church kids" would be alive if they had listened to the park ranger and paid attention to the warning signs. They decided to ignore the rules and this is what happened. While it's tragic, it shouldn't be that surprising that this was the result.... which is why I believe Terence said "Oh well..."

      July 21, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Obeythelaw

      TIM – no need to call someone worthless just because you disagree with their post. Those guardrails are there for a reason. A decision was made to climb over those guardrails. Question: Did she really have to climb over the rail just to take a picture – really?? I did not read that in the story. Oh well, whatever the reason, it is unfortunate but this can serve as a harsh lesson for others.

      July 21, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Zookeeper

    We have the same problems with fences. Every animal species except humans stay on their own side of the fence.(well, we did have this one retarded orangutan...) How did evolution miss that?

    July 21, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Queen

    Obey signs.
    Stay behind safety rails.
    Stay alive.
    Duh.

    July 21, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
  4. _aleph_

    What a horror, being swept over a 317' waterfall !

    July 21, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
  5. TIM 2

    They learned they shouldnt be a doing that. And they learned to not wear slippery bottomed shoes. And they learned they ought to be more careful. And they learned you cant falldown a waterfall if you are at home in the good air conditioning looking at a waterfall on the 58 inch LCD 3D tv. I think they learned all kinds of things.

    July 21, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
  6. TIM 2

    And they learned falling 3000 plus feet down a waterfall might be exciting on the way down but it is really not too fun when you get to the bottom.

    July 21, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • C Mac Diddy

      Or 317'....

      July 21, 2011 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Michael

    I've been to Crand Canyon also no Rails in lots of places, keeps natural beauty of nature to see, if you walk around guards, oh well. you would'nt walk into Highway for a great picture. Use common sense people, I hope they keep trails the same, RIP

    July 21, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • James M

      So many people seem to have been to the one place at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon where there are railings. But the Canyon has unlimited ways to die. You don't have to fall off the rim into the canyon. Dehydration is what kills most people and it would take some work to get far down a trail without being reminded about hydration, but people die often. Once at the top of Bright Angel (the main trailhead at that same place where all those resorts – and railings and fences and stuff – are), I saw a man who was obviously drunk, staggering down the trail. I got in his face and told him he was much too drunk to be on this dangerous trail, and that the few steps he had already taken were already going to be quite difficult to get back up. Another, much larger and much more assertive gentleman took over and "helped" him up. Obviously the drunk man was not very receptive to this treatment, but he was seriously flirting with death.

      July 21, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Insaneado

    Been to that fall five years ago and they have railings for a reason.

    July 21, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Eskimoman

    Thank you TIM 2, excellent answer.

    July 21, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
  10. TED

    Eskimoes are cool !

    July 21, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Eskimoman

    Don't call us Eskimos, we don't use that slur you SOB. Your mother is cool.

    July 21, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Eskimoman

    White man; you will always be our slave, WE RULE!!

    July 21, 2011 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
  13. TED

    : )

    July 21, 2011 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    A deceptive river?
    That's similar to seeing an iceberg and saying, "that's not so big."
    You have to know a few things to get through your whole life.

    July 21, 2011 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • James M

      We keep seeing pictures of the intense rapids right by the observation platform at the falls. Not far up the stream (where the accident actually happened) there are deceptively calm looking pools, certainly not whitewater rapids. It's easy to be misled in a stream like that, where the water looks calm but not far away has forces that are known to tear wooden boats apart and flatten canoes to ribbon (I have witnessed that). I have a feeling that the victims in this incident did not fully comprehend the danger they were in. Obviously they knew there was _some_ danger - they were purposely trying to take a thrill-seeking photograph.

      July 21, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stephen

      I'm not sure those pools – namely Emerald Pool – are so calm looking with that much CFS moving below Vernal. I was there last July, a pretty good water year but I imagine not in this year's league. Still, there was a sign that said Emerald Pool was closed due to water flow. ...

      Now I am reading on Wiki and the NPS site that Emerald Pool is permanently closed. Maybe I am thinking of the pool above Nevada Falls in terms of seasonal wading being OK. I remember as a teen in the '90s, tons of people swimming there.

      July 22, 2011 at 12:49 am | Report abuse |
    • Greg

      James, it wasn't that far up the stream. It was 25 feet from the edge. This video shows you both where it was, and the conditions they stepped into
      [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8MOq7fGvlg&w=640&h=360]

      July 24, 2011 at 3:30 am | Report abuse |
  15. Ch

    Ignore signs, check. Climb over fence, check. Play in water 25 feet from a 300 foot waterfall, check.

    Dumb, check.

    July 21, 2011 at 5:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Aj

      you got that right 'ch' LMAO

      July 21, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Report abuse |
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