Reflections on the loss of Andrés Pombo

Written 8/27/15: Yesterday I received the news that Andrés body was found – although I had already personally grieved for my friend, my heart is so heavy for his family. This experience along with the outcome is utterly tragic and the only thing left to grasp for is we may learn from it. This is the intention of my message – to share my personal experience so readers may reflect and integrate change into their own lives, preventing tragedy or reacting effectively and empathetically to it.  It is my truth, from my heart.

My Personal Experience with the Loss of Andrés Pombo:

I awoke Saturday morning to the news of Andrés disappearance and immediately began contacting my friends to find out how I could help. Discovering there was no organized volunteer search, a handful of us decided to meet at the race site to form a plan.  I called the sheriff to see where we could best assist and he told me his search team was on it by land, water and air but their resources were split as another person was lost on the mountain. He confirmed they could use as many eyes on the water as possible and gave me a water and land search area with details on how to ensure safety for a volunteer search.  I told him I’d recruit volunteers and be in touch.

When I approached the race site to meet my friends and gather volunteers I expected everyone to jump on board, to rally and get this search underway. I was registered to race both days as well, but to me it was not a question to drop what I was doing and search for my friend, a fellow paddler who had traveled from Florida for this event.

What I did not expect was to be met with a high level of inaction, apathy and resistance –in my emotional state it was shocking and incredibly disappointing to say the least. Those I had counted on were backpedaling out of the search and others were giving their excuses for not joining to include:

  1. Andrés was not wearing his PFD or leash – alluding that he had made his bed and now had to lie in it.
  2. Or, that in these conditions and being nearly a day later he was gone and there was nothing we could do.
  3. We would be putting volunteers in jeopardy because of the unsafe conditions of the river and make matters worse.
  4. We should not ask the race directors to delay the event or make it seem negative they are going on with the event as scheduled, or be pulling participants from the event.
  5. The Sheriff’s Dept. already had their team out looking and so there was nothing we could do.

I have many reasons to counter the excuses I was being given:

  1. We have all made poor decisions at some point in our lives – does that mean we don’t deserve help? Andrés was not the only one not wearing a leash and PFD – I personally witnessed at least 10 people without PFDs and leashes when I downwinded twice before the event day – enough to have a conversation with my teammates about it because we couldn’t believe how many people were doing it.
  2. Given it was not even 24 hours later, can we not hold onto hope that a miracle can happen and there is a slim chance he may be rescued?  Or show empathy to the family that is 3000 miles away who are damn sure holding onto hope with everything they have. Even if at this point you believed the search was a recovery mission, isn’t he worth being recovered as quickly as possible so everyone can receive closure and begin grieving and the process isn’t needlessly dragged on?
  3. The conditions were calm with 5mph winds, unlike the days preceding the event. There was an option to search on land if the water was considered unsafe and a safety plan in effect for all searchers.
  4. This is a two day event with flexible start times according to the best conditions. The main race wasn’t set to begin until early afternoon. There is obviously wiggle room in the schedule and I believe it would not have impacted the race greatly to delay the race start by even 1 hour to conduct a group search considering the amount of strong paddlers already present. The kids race began at 10:30a – what kind of example is this setting for our children that the race goes on even though a fellow paddler is missing?  In the least we can show them we put forth some effort to find the fallen before we go on.  On the second day the race didn’t begin until 2p with plenty of time for a morning search.  We wouldn’t be pulling participants from the event if the event itself delayed the start to allow for a quick group search being there were 250 paddlers in attendance.
  5. This is called “The Bystander Effect” – a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely related to the number of bystanders.  It’s the belief there is nothing I can do, that someone else is going to take care of it. There is always something we can do – our individual effort matters and makes a difference - regardless of whether this would’ve changed the outcome or not, it would have created a sense of community in the SUP industry and set an example for others.

On Saturday, the first day of my search, I had just one person who volunteered to help me – a man I had just met the day before who searched with me all day. We ran into only 6 others who were searching independently as well – 2 racers, 1 spectator, and 2 friends of Andrés who had traveled to the event with him. I’m not saying these are the only ones; my point is there weren’t many considering the amount at the event.

On the second day, Sunday, we finally gained a larger group of volunteers when a friend connected me with a local group of about 35 non-event paddlers, including 6 racers and most strangers to Andrés, who planned an effective organized search in which we covered the entire search area all day but unfortunately no find.

In addition to the verbal and written excuses I received from my SUP community I felt a sense that participants did not want their race/event/day to be interrupted or ruined by this incident. It left me feeling alone, like an outcast or someone you didn’t want to come around because I would be a damper on the mood. It was surprising to me because I was maintaining quite a grounded disposition – I was not in hysterics or intensely pressuring people to help.  Mostly I was relaying the search information and those who were receptive joined me and those who weren’t ignored me.  We all know there is no ideal time for a tragedy, but such is life and turning your head doesn’t make it go away.

How Can We Learn From This Tragedy:

Nothing will bring Andrés back or take away the pain of his loss.  But we can grow.

SAFETY: As paddlers we put ourselves at risk every time we go out on the water.  Through lack of accidents we become comfortable with those risks.  Perhaps we forget to bring a leash or PFD and go out anyway, or we are confident in our skill sets and feel safety gear is unnecessary or cumbersome and we choose to leave it behind.  Other times we are prepared for safety and our gear malfunctions (like a snapped leash).  Whatever the case may be, we need to double-check our own safety: carrying proper gear like PFD/leash/whistle/cell phone, paddling with a buddy, and being prepared with a plan in the event conditions change.

We must remember our choices don’t only effect us, but those around us that may need to rescue, search, and in worse cases, grieve for us.  Let’s be proactive and prevent as many incidences as possible.

CHANGE YOUR PERSPECTIVE: When an accident occurs, remember the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated.  Put yourself in the shoes of the fallen and their family/friends and let that be the driving force of your decisions and actions.  How would you want others to respond if it was you?  How would you want others to react if it was your loved one?  Your son? Your brother? Your husband? Your father? Your best friend?

If you change your perspective in that way you would act even if you believed it was unlikely he were to be rescued, or even if you thought this incident was his own doing because of poor decisions?  You would act to make a recovery simply out of respect, empathy, and to support his other loved ones.

You would also value human life over everything else, putting every responsibility, event, obligation or task on hold to help.  Everyone would understand, for without each other in the time of need, what do we have?

Over the last few days I’ve had a couple friends reach out independently and apologize for not supporting me in the search.  This speaks volumes to me as it means they are self reflecting, facing this incident head on and paving the way for future improvement.

As watermen and waterwomen we are constantly at risk and unfortunately tragedies will occur in the future – it is only how we react to them that can set an example and allow us to evolve into better human beings and a stronger community.

-Jessica Cichra

P.S. A heartfelt letter written by one of Andrés' Special Olympics SUP Athletes, Ricky Dager: