Drowned Woman's Body Haunts Rafters

Cops say river is too rough to recover her body, and they will leave it there.

ByABC News
July 6, 2008, 3:55 PM

GOLD BEACH, Ore., July 6, 2008— -- Police say white water rafters going through the tricky Blossom Bar rapids on southern Oregon's Rogue River may see the body of a California woman who drowned there last week but cannot be recovered.

Rescuers say they cannot recover the body of Cynthia Lee Vontungeln, 52, of Irvine, Calif., because of treacherous conditions in the rapids on the Wild and Scenic portion of the river.

Vontungeln and Michelle Shillinglaw, 38, of Austin, Texas, were part of a large guided kayak party floating the 34-mile section from Grave Creek to Foster Bar, deputies said.

Both were wearing lifejackets, but their inflatable kayak hit a rock and capsized as they attempted to pass the Picket Fence set of rocks.

The rapids usually are categorized as a Class 4 on a scale of six, with Class 6 considered too treacherous even for experienced rafters to run.

Shillinglaw survived but Vontungeln became trapped between rocks and drowned. A witness said Vontungeln helped push Shillinglaw to safety before she was overtaken by the current.

A search and rescue team, including helicopters from Jackson County, could not recover the victim.

The Coast Guard will not recover bodies, only live victims, Curry County sheriff's patrol Sgt. John Ward said.

"The only way to get her is by helicopter," he said. "It's a narrow canyon, and it's just too dangerous. We've been in contact with her family, and they understand. They don't want us to risk someone's life," he said.

"There are reports from Paradise Lodge saying people are upset because they see her in the water," Ward said.

The sheriff's office had asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers whether water levels could be reduced to aid recovery efforts.

But the corps said water levels would have to be lowered by half, which could endanger boaters in three counties and cause a massive fish kill.

She was the second person to drown in the Blossom Bar area in June.

On June 1, a San Jose, Calif., man drowned while he and another man tried to swim across the river near Paradise Lodge after their raft had drifted away. He was not wearing a lifejacket.