FARMINGTON — From now on, Steve Rogge may have second thoughts about taking light family excursions down to the river.
Earlier this month, a family trip to Berg Park along the Animas River to lay flowers at All Veterans Memorial Park quickly turned dire.
"It was so unbelievable. I still have trouble when I think about it. It's frightening," said Steve Rogge, 41. "It all happened so fast. What do you do? Do you stand there or do something?"
For Rogge, it's not a real choice. You do something.
As Rogge, his wife and daughter relaxed on the north bank of the Animas River on Easter Sunday afternoon, they fed two injured waterfowl they'd affectionately named Wounded Walter and Wounded Winnie.
And then Steve Rogge spotted children — a boy, about 10, and a girl, about 12 — on the opposite side of the river, walking shakily across half-submerged rocks near where the river comes together at a point before a waterfall spills into a pool upstream from the veterans plaza.
"The waters come down off of this thing, the falls, like crazy, and these two young kids, in the blink of an eye, just dropped right in," Rogge said. "I mean, good grief, it was raging water. Just spraying all over the place."
The 6-foot-1-inch Rogge jumped in to rescue the children, the water reaching up to his neck.
"I got the girl by the arm. The boy, I struggled to get a hold of him. It took everything, all I had, to grab both kids," he said. "The current was pulling her clothes off. The boy's glasses flew off. I tried to move, and I struggled. I was leanin' into that current as hard as I could."
As he fought to get back to shore, Rogge felt his right leg buckle, his foot wedged between rocks that rendered him immobile and in pain.
He looked at the young adults who he thought were with the children before they went into the water. The young man just stood there, Rogge recalled.
Minutes later, he got help from his wife, Diana Rogge, who waded into knee-deep water to help after she called 911. Emergency crews arrived and treated and released the boy and girl. And then Steve Rogge earned himself a ride in an ambulance to San Juan Regional Medical Center, a torn meniscus and ligaments and a sprained knee the price for his efforts.
For Steve Rogge, the experience was eerily familiar. He'd done practically the same thing at that same spot last April.
"That's what's so crazy about the whole thing," he recalled. "It was a year ago, in April, a boy, same place. He slipped, hit his head and went under. I dove in head-first on that one. He made it, was OK. Ninety-nine percent of the families that go down to the river there are observant, but there's that 1 percent who just aren't observant or aware."
Diana Rogge thinks the kids her husband fished out are lucky to be alive.
"We call that part of the river 'the washing machine,' the way the water constantly splashes and churns there," she said. "People want to get in the water and don't realize the danger. It's ice cold, takes your breath away. There are deep channels, and it's moving fast."
Jeremy Dugan, a lieutenant with the Farmington Fire Department and member of the department's technical rescue team, knows all too well the dangers the river represents each spring. Last year, the team pulled 15 people out of the river.
"White-water engineers engineer the river bottom for kayakers and rafters," Dugan said. "The effect is a nonstop hydraulic motion, affectionately called 'the Maytag.' Once you're stuck in one, you spin around, and it holds you. If you call 911, tell them you've been 'Maytagged.' They'll know exactly what that means."
Each spring, snowmelt from the San Juan Mountains engorges the river with icy waters, often strewn with debris. The water moves a lot faster and runs at least 10 feet deeper than during other seasons, Dugan said.
River water speed is measured in cubic feet per second, a velocity that can fluctuate wildly day-to-day.
"It's cyclical. Every time the snow melts, you're going to see a flux in water flow. After a sunny day, you can expect the river to be running faster, colder the next day," Dugan said. "Penny Lane (a rapids section of the Animas River) was 950 (CFS) just the other day. The day after, it rose to 2,000 (CFS). It can double that fast. We'll see an annual peak of 3,000 to 3,500 (CFS)."
If the speed doesn't dissuade the casual river-goer from getting wet, the cold should, he said.
"Just consider that 24 hours before, that water was snow and flowing water takes longer to melt," Dugan said. "I was out in a dry suit the other day, and I was really cold. If you're in swimming shorts, it's like 40 seconds in and your hands are too cold to move, and your heart rate goes through the roof."
Many people also don't understand the power of the river.
"It's a common misconception, how strong the river is," said Dugan, who teaches swift-water lessons. "I don't care how good of a swimmer you are, you can't fight it. It's the one in control, ultimately."
Dugan recommended a life jacket for all river recreation and that people check river flow rates at waterdata.usgs.gov.