Survivor recalls flash flood Scouting tragedy 50 years later

Mar 4 2012 - 11:26pm

ST. GEORGE -- Somewhere beneath the waters of the Virgin River -- perhaps even of Lake Mead more than 100 miles downstream -- lie the remains of two Boy Scouts killed 50 years ago in a flash flood that swept through the Zion National Park Narrows.

A skull fragment recovered from the river five years ago and believed to be from one of the flood victims is evidence of the passage of time since the deadly incident. Even now, the memory of that day in September 1961 doesn't rest easily for one of the survivors of the ill-fated trek undertaken by a wilderness expedition group called Socotwa.

"It rained a little bit during the night but nothing significant. We weren't sleeping under tents or anything like that," Ivins resident John Bangerter said in a Feb. 23 interview. "I guess it had been raining back in the hills behind us -- of course, that we didn't know."

Bangerter and more than 20 others, including the Scouts, were hiking the Narrows on what they expected to be a two-day trip.

Instead, after camping overnight and descending into the Narrows, the group was caught up in a wall of water and debris that swept through the slot canyons and carried off five of their members -- 48-year-old Scoutmaster Walt Scott of Murray, who was the trek's leader, and four teenagers from the Salt Lake Valley and Park City.

"We had just barely got out of the very Narrows, where if two persons were walking side by side, they could each hold the other's hand and then also reach and touch the opposite wall -- and the walls ran up 100, 200 feet," Bangerter said. "And (we) heard this roar behind us. We stopped and looked, and here comes this wall of water about 3 feet high."

Bangerter and four others with him were on ground that was high enough that they weren't swept off, although the water rose about 8 feet to the point that it lapped at their feet as they pressed their backs against a wall of the canyon, he said.

Another small group was safe on an even higher bank. Fifteen others in a side canyon lashed themselves to trees to avoid being pulled away by the torrent. But Scott and the four teens were less fortunate.

"I didn't see it, but (my friend) Buzz Moss thought he saw one of the group, possibly Walt Scott, coming down floating, struggling in the water, and (he) saw the backpack," Bangerter said. "And that was all we saw. We didn't see any more of him."

The bodies of Scott, Steven Florence, 13, of Park City and Paul Nicholes, 17, of Salt Lake City, were eventually recovered, but the bodies of Alvin Nelson and his best friend, Frank Johnson, both 17, were never found.

Springdale Police Chief Kurt Wright said he suspects the skull fragment found five years ago by a swimmer in the Virgin River belongs to one of the missing boys, but it wasn't until he learned of a free DNA-matching program at a Texas university that he was able to do anything to investigate.

Earlier this month, Wright sent the skull fragment and DNA samples from Nelson's only surviving sister, who lives in Holladay, plus a DNA sample from one of Johnson's surviving brothers in Oregon to see if the skull can be identified.

"The university requested additional DNA samples from Johnson's family," Wright said Feb. 24. "So I've obtained an additional sample from (his) sister. ... It's in the mail from the Anchorage, Alaska, police."

Wright said the request doesn't indicate the lab believes the skull belongs to Johnson, however; it's just a situation where "the more (samples), the merrier."

"Some of the family members are not interested in participating on the Johnson side. They're still traumatized, and they don't want to go forward with it," Wright said.

The university does not want to commit to a timeline on when it will have results, but it is trying to be quick with the work, he said.

Wright said there are no plans to search for additional remains in the stretch of river where the skull fragment was found, although it is possible volunteers may eventually go in with shovels.

"Stuff could be spread out from here to Lake Mead, of course," he said.

Bangerter said the flood swept through the canyon on a Sunday morning, and the group remained trapped on their perches overnight, hoping the water wouldn't rise any higher.

"We had a couple canteens and figured, 'Well, we don't know whether we'll make it,' so we took the ... canteens and took the two youngest kids and kind of tied those around their necks," he said. "We thought ... 'They'll have the best chance of something like that being a flotation device.' Well, fortunately it never had to occur."

Eventually, the members of Bangerter's group were able to lie down on their perch as the water receded, he said.

"I had a flashlight and there was a big rock out in the middle of the river that we were keeping watch on. I could flash the light on it and ... as long as I could see the peak of that rock, we knew that everything was more or less OK," Bangerter said. "Eventually, because of the moisture, the flashlight went out. ... We were right there through the night."

Morning came and the survivors were reunited, walking across debris-filled ponds and using a rope line to make their way up out of the canyon.

"There apparently had been reports of the river changing course down in the Mesquite area," Bangerter said. "I heard there was a carcass of a bull that was up in a tree. ... But anyway, we finally got out."

Bangerter said it wasn't his last trip down the Narrows.

"In fact, I went down the following year again," he said. "That was not overnight, that was straight through, fast as I could go. It was like conquering a fear. Maybe it's a thing that would be crazy, the following year, doing it again. ...(But) it was almost like I had to go."

Bangerter said he would still enjoy repeating some of his Socotwa adventures if he could, without the tragedies.

"No question about it, you don't know when your (last) day is going to be, and (you have to) just live life to the fullest as you can," he said. "Certainly, that bothered me a lot, but ... you can't dwell on it. You've got to move on."

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