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. Frank Castle


    July 22, 2011 at 8:48 am | Report abuse |
  2. dan

    you 3 out of gene pool now!

    July 22, 2011 at 9:28 am | Report abuse |
  3. Pensera

    My Yosemite experience: I'm in my sixties now, but when I was a teenager and a wild child, I hung out at Yosemite, partying wildly with the staff there (they threw huge bonfire parties at night, all kinds of booze and who knows what else!). Once night I partied too hard with a lifeguard from the Yosemite Lodge, got mad at him and took off drunk to walk to Camp Curry alone at 4 a.m. Not a soul in sight.

    Drunk as I was, I was astounded at all the animals out now that the people were out of the way. Had any of those animals decided to attack me out of hunger or fear, I was done for - I saw black bears, deer by the herd, I can't even remember.But wait, it gets better.

    From the distance come roaring up a couple of Hells Angels on huge motorcycles. They stop and see before them a drunk teenage girl, totally defenseless, and what do they do? They gently put me on a bike and drive me to Camp Curry and drop me off, safe as a baby lamb. Now had I been murdered of eaten or blundered into some lethal river, I would have been a statistic and all you Darwin people would have crowed. Instead, I matured into a successful writer. Yosemite has dangers beyond the natural ones, but here's my point: It's all a matter of luck. And if you have ever been lucky in your life - think back- that should humble you too much to go braying about those who are unlucky. If any of you Darwin scolds have ever taken a risk- even not washing a cut, then you have dodged fate once more, as you probably do all the time without even realizing it..If you are smart at all, you should be too grateful to patronize the unlucky dead. Have a little humility. By all Darwin's odds, you should have ended up in a condom, really.

    July 22, 2011 at 10:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Jon

      That's a great story but totally unrelated to what happened here. I have been to Yosemite many times, starting when I was 14 in 1973. I worked there for several years as well. I have hiked every trail up from the valley and in the high country multiple times. There are many places where you can challenge yourself and the risks are always apparent. Only in a very few places are there actual warning signs and those should be adhered to. I have to admit that years ago I used to swim in the Emerald Pool above Vernal Falls, but only late in the year when the water had subsided some. To climb over a rail right above the falls and put your feet into rushing river water only a few feet back from the falls is just stupid behavior. I know its a tragedy whenever someone dies suddenly but these people took risks beyond what a reasonable person would do.

      July 22, 2011 at 11:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Really???

      It is obvious that you neglected to develop proper reading comprehension skills in the ensuing decades granny free love. If you had done so, you would have noticed that all three of these victims were past the age of 21. In fact, one of them was a 27year old man. Tales of your degenerate youth do not mitigate the fact that these adults died from a lack of commonsense. They died by hopping over the barrier, & placing their feet into a raging torrent in defiance of the posted safety signs. I am sad that they died & I feel compassion for their families, but your reasoning is severely flawed .

      July 22, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kris

      No such thing as luck. There are consequences to actions...you either do or don't learn from them. There are things that we can and can't control. Period. There are reasons for fences and railings and signs that say, "dangerous currents"; "do not climb rocks"; "danger, slippery rocks"; and "don't feed the wildlife"...you ignore the signs, then you have to accept the consequences. These three people have no choice now because of their stupidity and it has absolutely nothing to do with "luck". Glad you made it out alright though.

      July 23, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • ohsnap

      Sorry...nice story but I disagree about 'luck'. These people, like you, had total control over their choices. But let's take it a step further...these people weren't drunk. They were sober and still made a stupid choice. Those barriers are there for a reason. Saying it was 'luck' put the success or blame on someone or something else when, in reality, the choice was theirs to make. They made a wrong choice. They're dead. Period.

      July 23, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Greg

      Although I agree with you that we all have been lucky at some point, and I know there are many times I could have been foolishly killed for doing something stupid, I feel the need to point something out:

      Look at the videos of Vernal Fall on Youtube. Look at that raging water. Look at that rock they were wading out to.

      They weren't unlucky. What they did was basically suicide. There was no way they were going to reach that rock alive, much less get back from it alive. There was simply no way. What they did condemned them, no matter what factor luck would play. There was no chance of survival due to what they did.

      When I stood near that waterfall (at a time when it was drier than that), I was still awestruck by its thunderous power. How could they not have had that instinct warning them away?

      July 24, 2011 at 3:02 am | Report abuse |
    • ZipADeeDo

      I have an aversion to all those condescending, patronizing and sneering remarks of people feeling themselves so much better than others around them. So thank you Pensera for your reaction and your call to reason.

      July 24, 2011 at 9:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      Witnesses at the scene were yelling and pleading with them not to go into the water. It has nothing to do with luck, it was stupidity. Everybody else there knew they were going to die, people were actually turning away to not see it, if you look at pictures of the scene and all of the warnings you would know it was just idiocy.

      August 1, 2011 at 10:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • mervyn

      too long didnt read

      August 4, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jeff Williams

      Kris, your comment reminded me of this quote:

      "In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences." – Robert Green Ingersoll

      August 8, 2011 at 11:45 am | Report abuse |
  4. Joey Idiot- Fazolla

    Pensera-Too bad you didnt end up in a condom! How can you ASSume all Hells Angels are murderers? Successful writer? Hard to believe.

    July 22, 2011 at 11:08 am | Report abuse |
    • Pensera

      Sorry if I gave the impression that I thought "all Hell's Angels are murderers" - exactly the opposite is what I intended- namely that appearances are not truth. The truth was that despite their fierce appearance they were great guys and probably better than most!

      July 22, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pat

      My uncle was in the Hell's Angels, his job was to run Herione up Highway 5 for several years he got away with it too.

      July 22, 2011 at 7:50 pm | Report abuse |
  5. mountain made

    It wasn't bad luck that swept these 3 people over the falls. They willingly entered a raging river above a 317 foot waterfall. It was not bad luck. It was stupidity. I spend alot of time in the backcountry of Montana in all seasons, where there are no guardrails, warning signs or park rangers, gps and cell phones don't work and the nearest human is miles and miles away. I can look at a raging river and know that to enter it is death. Even a greenhorn should be able to make that assessment. Basic animal instinct. bad luck? Nope. Stupidity.

    July 22, 2011 at 11:22 am | Report abuse |
  6. People are heartless.

    There is hate in the world because of people like you. Keep your comments to yourself, and have fun in hell.

    July 22, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Rochelle

    I visited Yellowstone with my children in the late 70s. Yellowstone has hundreds of thermal sites where walk-ways are marked with dire warning signs. Foreign tourists either couldn't read the signs...although they were in several languages...or simply had no common sense. They would step over the railings and pose for photos on the edges of thermal pools and mud-pots. Not just one spot but most of these spots. I don't think common sense is so different around the world that individuals ignore obvious dangers.

    July 23, 2011 at 2:28 am | Report abuse |
  8. Amber

    Ok to the people who are being so mean with their comments I ask that you please respect the 3 victims and their familes and freinds. The familes are friends are going through a very hard time now and these comments make me very mad and sad to see how some people can be very mean. And one more thing before I go how many times have you all done some things that may have not been safe once or maybe twice in your lifetime. These 3 victims are loved by many people from their community and you need to be human here and show respect.

    July 23, 2011 at 5:41 am | Report abuse |
    • Jon

      Yes, it was a tragedy. I agree, we should have sympathy for their families. But the stupidity level in this country and I guess everywhere is increasing at a rate that is out of this world. When a sign says stay back, especially in a National Park where there are very few warning signs, only in the most dangerous of areas, people should pay attention.

      July 23, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Is PENSERA Your mother?

    PAT you and Your uncle are DOUCHBAGS.You break the law and are a festering sore on the backside of humanity(Tim Ripley). You and your kind cost honest taxpayers millions of dollars every year. Yooooou SUCK!

    July 23, 2011 at 8:25 am | Report abuse |
  10. American

    It is a tragedy 3 people died. It doesn't matter that they were Assyrian or even Christian. Don't turn this into a racial or religious thing.

    July 23, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Drogo, who bit the dust

    More taxpayer money being wasted on idiots.

    July 24, 2011 at 12:19 am | Report abuse |
  12. Ruf

    Did I read something about a guardrail in the first few paragraphs? Hmmm, don't let that fool you!

    July 24, 2011 at 3:09 am | Report abuse |
  13. Sierra

    "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."

    I don't know where this guy (Dave Steindorf) is getting his information. I was there in June 2002, and July 2003, and that waterfall was anything but a trickle.

    July 24, 2011 at 10:56 am | Report abuse |
  14. fritz

    This was a horrifying article. The very idea of floating over a high falls gives me the chills. It seems obvious I suppose but I'll say it anyway. Don't do dangerous things. That way, you'll live longer. If you can't swim then learn how or stay out of deep water. And don't go into the water near a high waterfall. You might go over. Hmm.

    July 24, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Greg

    “People wouldn’t consider walking out into a blizzard without any clothes on" Steindorf said.

    Of course not. You'd be arrested for that.

    August 2, 2011 at 1:37 am | Report abuse |
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