ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, June 24, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 04

Gone with the waves

As a whitewater rafting ride at Kitulgala ends in tragedy many unanswered questions remain

By Dhananjani Silva and Isuri Kaviratne. Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara.

On Saturday, July 16, a boat carrying a group of holiday-makers capsized while whitewater rafting on the Kelani River at Kitulgala claiming two young lives. Waruni Kannangara and Ronnie Rogers were the victims of the accident which occurred when 20 of the 40 employees of a private company in Colombo who had gone on an office outing to Kitulgala, decided to take a whitewater rafting ride.

To add to the tragedy, a Navy diver, Dolamullage Nandana kumara from Elpitiya who was involved in the search operations also drowned at the same location on Sunday. He was attached to the Rangala Navy camp. Waruni Kannangara, 27, from Thalapathpitiya, the mother of a three-year-old daughter had joined the shipping company six months ago as Manager, Sales and Marketing. Ronnie Rogers was Marketing Manager of an affiliated company, which Waruni had been attached to earlier. He too had joined the Group just six months ago. Twenty-five years old, Rogers who lived with his parents and younger brother in Kotahena, was a bachelor.

According to the DMO’s report, the cause of Waruni’s death had been identified as cessation of heart activity due to water getting into the lungs subsequent to drowning.
When The Sunday Times visited the scene of the tragedy in Kitulgala on Wednesday, June 20, Rogers’ body had just been washed ashore and the cause of death was the same as in Waruni’s case.

Ajith Pushpakumara who was on security duty at the construction site of the bridge on the Yatiyantota Paravelatenna Road was an eyewitness to the tragedy.

Ajith Pushpakumara: Eyewitness to the tragedy

“It was around 2.20 p.m. on Saturday and like on other days, I heard the loud shouts of a group of people. People usually scream when they are confronted with the rapid wave of Kandaketiyawala where rafts often capsize,” he said.

On hearing a cry of ‘aiyo’, Ajith had run down to the riverbank. The sight that met his eyes was of the raft which had capsized. All the eight people in the raft, including the instructor were in the water. Ajith had also seen a person caught up in the current although he was unable to identify whether it was a male or female.

“The second raft carrying another seven people and the instructor which came after a while, started to help those who were in the water to get into their raft. I shouted, asking them to remove the cable which was put up across the river for transportation of the bridge building equipment seeing that someone seemed to be entangled in it,” he recalled. He later discovered that this was Waruni.

According to Ajith, after all those in the raft that capsized were rescued, including Waruni, he noticed a life jacket and helmet floating in the water upon which he had inquired if all the people were rescued. Waruni, he noticed, still had her jacket on.“But as they said no one was missing, the instructors then attended to the victims by giving them artificial respiration and they were then taken to the hospital,” he said.

Part of the cable

He added that usually the rafts capsize at this point and they would often have to help the people to come to the riverbank.“Some people actually hold on to the cable and slowly come to safety. The cable has been there for nearly eight months now and we have never removed it before. The instructors who take groups on whitewater rafting know that the cable is there and usually the rafts go above the cable as it lies one foot below water.”

Meanwhile, villagers told The Sunday Times that this particular spot where the tragedy took place which is known as ‘pokunu wala’ is a famous bathing place for most pilgrims who come during the Sri Pada season.“The water is about 60 feet deep here. There are people who do not pay heed to the warnings of the villagers and the signs put up by the Police indicating the dangers. As a result there have been a few deaths that have taken place here,” said a villager who did not want to be identified.

Rogers’ body that was washed ashore on Wednesday.

Action Lanka, the organizers of this water rafting tour refuted allegations that the deaths took place due to a defect in the life jackets they had supplied. It was the first time that an incident of this nature occurred although they had been in operation for 10- 12 years, a spokesperson for the company said. “Prior to this particular boat ride, we took three other groups on water rafting tours that morning but nothing happened. There have been times when the water levels have been much higher,” he said.
The spokesperson was also adamant that their staff were adequately trained to conduct the tours.

“We have well trained members in our team. Six of us have even followed the British Canoe Union course on rafting as well as the Red Cross First Aid course which we have also taught the rest of our team members. Before we start on a tour, we make sure that the crew members have worn their life jackets properly with all the buckles on, but there are instances where people loosen the clips if they feel uncomfortable even against our instructions. We inform them of the nature of the river, advise them on the seating positions and also instruct them on the precautionary measures to be taken in case of an emergency,” he said adding that a majority of the members of this particular group ignored their instructions.

The Action Lanka spokesperson also added that the cable on which Waruni had been entangled is usually removed during weekends and on the days when construction work is not being done. The management of the Kitulgala Plantation Hotel where the group had spent the day refused to comment on the tragedy saying that water rafting was not included in their package.

However, a director of the company said that it was only on seeing the promotional banner put up in the hotel on whitewater rafting, that the group had decided to try the adventure and it was from the hotel reception that the booking was made.“After the incident, the banner had been removed and now the hotel disclaims any connection with Action Lanka,” he said.

Police sources told The Sunday Times that there could have been several reasons for the mishap, such as the cable which was put across the river, the water level in the river being high, etc. Stressing the importance of safety measures, the Police spokesperson advised the public to refrain from consuming liquor prior to taking water rafting rides.

The police have put up boards warning of the dangerous depth of the river. “People outside the area do not know much about the level of risk attached to it,” he added. Many are the instances where the public, especially vendors, have removed the warning signs put up by the police for their convenience, he said, pointing out the terrible consequences.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.