PHOENIX — On April 15th, 1979, Gail Kasowski was a University of Arizona student on a rafting trip with friends. The group’s guide made a mistake, leading them to a diversion dam on the Salt River that was overflowing with powerful floodwaters.
They floated over the edge of the dam and became trapped in the churning rapids below. The water, like a vacuum, held them in place while they struggled to hang onto their rafts.
“Everyone was falling off the boats and I didn’t know what was going on,” said Kasowski, recalling the moment 42 years later.
A deadly trap in frigid waters
Two of Kasowski’s fellow rafters slipped in the frigid April waters and drowned. Others swam to safety.
Minutes passed. Gail was becoming exhausted and losing her grip on her own raft.
Overhead, two helicopters circled but could not get close enough to the rapids to help. One of the helicopters was Sky 12, piloted by former newsman Jerry Foster. The other was a helicopter operated by the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
Both pilots had gotten word of the stranded rafters stuck in the middle of the river.
“By this time, I mean there’s helicopters and police but nobody could reach us,” Kasowski said. “My roommate fell in and she was gone. That’s when I don’t remember anything else.”
'I thought she was gone'
Kasowski said she remembers feeling so tired and disoriented that she “decided to take a nap.” She fell in and was submerged underwater.
“When she fell in I thought she was gone,” said Tom Armstrong, a retired DPS pilot.
But a loose life vest was tied by a strap to Kasowski’s arm. After a short amount of time passed, Armstrong noticed the life vest emerge from the water like a buoy downriver. That’s when the two helicopter pilots worked together.
Armstrong’s DPS partner, Clarence Forbey, sat on the skid of Sky 12 and decided he would try to grab Kasowski underwater with his free arm. The dangerous rescue would require Foster’s helicopter to hover just above the water, if not touching the rapids.
“Had we not made it, had we crashed, you go from hero to zero, just like that you know?” Foster said.
A daring act. A life saved
Armstrong hovered above Sky 12 and spoke to Foster by radio, guiding him to the life vest.
A painting of the incident memorializes what happened next. It shows Forbey clinging to Kasowski’s wrist while she is lifted out of the water. Her body is limp. She is unconscious and not breathing.
“We were kind of like one of those birds of prey when they come around and get the fish and off they go,” Foster said.
They brought the dying woman to shore and performed CPR.
“And she coughed up, in my mouth, by the way, but it was so exciting,” Foster said. “There’s just nothing that can describe when you really, truly save someone’s life.”
Moving forward with survivor’s guilt
Over the years, Kasowski considered contacting her rescuers. But survivor’s guilt is a powerful thing.
“I would think about it but then sometimes it would just get really hard,” Kasowski said.
Kasowski got married and had four children, then four grandchildren.
The tragedy shaped Kasowski’s career.
“It left me with a new appreciation for life, not to take it for granted,” Kasowski said.
She studied social work at UArizona and became a family therapist and school counselor. Having survived such a traumatic experience, Kasowski was able to empathize with many of her clients.
“It left me wanting to be sure I could help other people because it was such a struggle for me to get through that time,” Kasowski said.
A joyous reunion
This summer while in her Minnesota home, Kasowski saw video of the 1979 rescue for the first time on YouTube. She decided to contact the three men who saved her and they reunited in December in Phoenix.
It was an emotional reunion for all four of them.
“Being the survivor, I think is really hard because how do you put it into words? You look at everything you have in life and none of it would have existed without these guys,” Kasowski said, referencing the three men sitting with her.
Kasowski’s effort to make the reunion happen was a gift for Forbey as well. During his 24 years of service at DPS, he helped a lot of people in distress.
“This is the one and only person who ever came back to say hi or thank you,” Forbey said. “She’s the one and only.”
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