Folly spawns heroism, and 3 friends die in river

February 16, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

On a day that began in celebration, three friends died together in an icy whirlpool at the foot of a waterfall south of Palm Springs, Calif., a tragedy spawned by foolishness and heroism.

Authorities, who had been searching rain-swollen Murray Canyon since Sunday afternoon -- when one of two survivors led them to the remote site -- recovered the last of the bodies yesterday.

"I know I should be dead but somehow, through the grace of God, I'm not," said survivor John Torchia, 20, a lifeguard who vainly struggled against spinning currents to rescue his dying friends and his dog, Buddy.

The dead, all from Riverside, Calif., were identified as Steve Lopez, 19, Clayton DeFrese, 21, and Charles Kikuchi, 20. Mr. DeFrese and Mr. Kikuchi drowned trying to rescue Mr. Lopez.

Friends for nearly 10 years, the group often hiked together. But in recent months, their lives had begun to move in separate directions. On Sunday, they decided to get together for a reunion of sorts, to celebrate Mr. Kikuchi's birthday and give a send-off to Mr. Torchia, who would soon be moving to Berkeley, Calif.

The day began with breakfast at a Denny's restaurant, where Mr. Kikuchi got a free meal because it was his birthday. With Buddy trotting alongside, they hit the trails of Murray Canyon, a favorite hiking spot in the San Jacinto Mountains just south of Palm Springs. After hiking the steep terrain for several hours, the "brothers," as they dubbed themselves, decided to head home.

"It was a perfect day," Mr. Torchia said tearfully in a telephone interview, "then it got real ugly."

On their way back, about 2 p.m., they stopped at a place they called "the rock slides," where they would ride down river-slicked boulders. All but Mr. Torchia had done it before and said it was great fun.

"That was my first time there; the guys had done it many times before. I just figured it was safe," Mr. Torchia said. "From where we were standing, we couldn't see there was a whirlpool."

Mr. Lopez went first -- and disappeared. His four friends figured he was clowning around. So Mr. DeFrese jumped in to see what was going on. Within 10 seconds, the swift current had tossed him to the bank. "He's in trouble! He's in trouble!" Mr. DeFrese shouted after he had climbed to the shore and spotted Mr. Lopez in a whirlpool. Despite the frigid water, he jumped back in and fought the currents until he reached his friend's body.

Meanwhile, Mr. Torchia and Mr. Kikuchi jumped in to help save their friends. "I had some hesitation," Mr. Torchia said, "but when I realized [Mr. Lopez] was in trouble, I had to help him."

By then, Mr. Lopez was purple from the cold, his eyes open though he was unconscious. Using his lifeguard training, Mr. Torchia tried to revive him with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation as Mr. DeFrese struggled to hold Mr. Lopez's head out of the water.

But Mr. Torchia knew they were too late. He screamed at Mr. DeFrese to let their dead friend go. Now it was time for the others to save themselves as the currents swept them beneath a rock ledge.

With icy water pounding at their chests, they could barely stand. "I tried a couple of times to get out," Mr. Torchia said, "but just fighting the current was exhausting."

He kicked off his sneakers and finally managed to crawl out of the whirlpool. He tried to extend a strap of a hiking pack to his friends, but they were beyond reach.The current caught him again and swept him downstream, and he clambered out again.

"I knew if I stayed in the water any longer I was going to die," Mr. Torchia said. "When I got out of the water, that was all the PTC strength I had. I was completely frozen. I ran across the desert, screaming the whole way that I needed help."

Their other friend, John Coffee, who had not jumped in, also went for help and reached authorities after a 2 1/2 -hour hike.

At 4:45 p.m. on Sunday, Riverside County sheriff's deputies reached the whirlpool and found the bodies of Mr. Kikuchi and Mr. Lopez.

Yesterday, officials returned to Murray Canyon, where they found Mr. DeFrese.

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