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"Close Calls" Series: A River Rescue In West Texas

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Griffin Carlin of Alpine, Texas. He says he learned a lesson in teamwork and friendship on the Pecos River in west Texas. (Lorne Matalon)

On Memorial Day, two fathers and their four sons woke up to find their equipment and canoes swept away in a flash flood on the Pecos River in west Texas. Other groups on the river were also unaccounted for in a spectacular setting bounded by jagged canyons and high desert.

The six did not miss their estimated time to leaving the river. They were never lost.

But the U.S. Border Patrol, a state police helicopter and three National Park Service river launches were dispatched to find all the people known to have been on the river that day.

For two friends, nine-year-old Francis Benton of Marfa, Texas and 11-year-old Griffin Carlin of Alpine, their weekend trip unraveled in the early morning of Memorial Day as nature turned nasty. They were caught in a flash flood.

As the name implies, the deluge comes with little warning.

“It was just raging. It was like woosh,” said Benton of the river.

“We grabbed as much stuff as we could and we kept on carrying it up,” said Carlin.

The pair was with their fathers and older brothers, all of whom are experienced river runners.

“And that’s not wind," explained Benton recalling the sound that signaled the start of a long night.

"That’s water," he continued. "Because our tent wasn’t moving. So that was the water! And the river has a serious river cane problem. And so you just see these islands of river cane floating by.”

Carlin said, “We heard rushing water, the rushing of everybody getting up higher.”

“And our clothes are soaking wet. I was in my underwear. And I had my hat.”

“And it started to rain. It was freezing cold," said Benton.

The group managed to find a dry shelter in a nearby cave.

“And we just snuggled there,” recalled Benton. “I’d lost my teddy bear. That was sad.”

Their fathers left the cave to plan a route out.

"Our older brothers were saying that everything was going to be alright," said Carlin. "They’ll come back pretty soon.”

“It was pitch black other than our headlights," said Benton." And every five milliseconds, thunder just goes kaboom, kaboom. And it was really scary and traumatizing.”

At daybreak, the fathers planned to lead the children to their cars parked several hours away.

“And I don’t have any shoes because the river took them away,” said Benton.

Four hours away in Big Bend National Park, ranger Michael Ryan was off-duty, waking up to enjoy Memorial Day with his wife and son.

“And at this point I began to fear the worst,” he recalled, pain still evident in his facial expression.

Ryan is close with Benton's father and he knows both families well. And he knew they were on the river that day.

Ryan called a rancher who'd helped the group put in their canoes on his land.

He also called colleagues at the National Park Service. Three NPS river launches were dispatched and a search began, not only for this party but other groups and people known to have been on the Pecos River.

“They found canoes three canoes tied together downstream in a heap of debris," Ryan recalled. "That’s not a good sign.”

A police helicopter was called in.

“The helicopter passed over us about three times and didn’t see us,” said Carlin.

“And when the helicopters hadn’t seen anybody in that area, ughh, it really, well just made everybody’s heart sink," said Ryan.

Benton says the group made jokes to boost morale. But even humor could not remove the reality that they were in a harsh environment.

”There was cactus and mesquite. And this almost invisible cactus," said Benton. "And so the almost invisible cactus stings a lot. And it stings more when you pull it out. But you just have to pull it out or it’ll get deep into your skin.”

Complicating the journey was a necklace of canyons that flank the river. The fathers saw a gravel road in the distance that they thought could help them reach their cars. But first they had to get to the other side of the canyons.

“We finally found a place to get across," said Carlin. "So we crossed over, got up on the other side. And we ran into a fence.”

They scaled it.

“We just walked until we reached this guy’s house,” said Benton.

“We were all very hungry," said Carlin."So we decide to look into their fridge.”

"And we didn’t feel like we were doing anything wrong," Benmton said. "We just opened the fridge and got the Snicker bars.”

“I did know that we were trespassing and taking, stealing food," Carlin recalled." But we were all hungry, thirsty.”

After eating chocolate bars, the group went to the porch of the structure, which was akin to a hunting cabin.

Carlin explained what happened next.

“We saw way off in the distance, some smoke or something like that. And when they got closer, we could make out the name on the truck, ‘Border Patrol.’ “

Agents got out of their truck and approached.

“They said,’ You know who is looking for you, right?,’ recalled Benton. "It was like,  No we don’t.’ Because we just thought we were fine.”

NPS Ranger Michael Ryan, whose off-duty actions helped trigger the search, put what happened into perspective.

“Things like this can happen," he continued." And they can really be defining."

"It can really show people who they are and where they are. And if we can pass those challenges to our children, I think that’s a good thing to do for them.”

“We survived and we learned something about helping each other," said Carlin at home.

"And we learned something about life.”

“I realized how many people loved me, said Benton.”

”And that’s how it was.”