Friday, August 26, 2011

Sun Valley man dies in crash over cliff

Group out sightseeing witnesses accident on Trail Creek Road

Express Staff Writer

Members of the Ketchum Fire Departmentís Rope Rescue Team work their way down the cliff. They recovered the body of Brian R. Griffin about four hours after his truck rolled down the embankment off Trail Creek Road on Wednesday. Photo by David N. Seelig

Elena Grapa and her co-workers from Sun Valley Resort were enjoying a day off and a photo expedition out Trail Creek Road when they saw a red truck leave the gravel road in a cloud of dust Wednesday afternoon.

Emerah Kaplan and Jose Villa didn't hesitate to run to help. At first, they thought it was their friends, who had ventured ahead in another car.

"I was yelling, 'No! It's too dangerous,'" Grapa said. "But Emerah just said, 'Here's my camera, here's my phone, I'm going down there,' and he took off with Jose."

"I didn't really think about it," Villa said later. "I thought it was my friends, but either way, I knew someone was in trouble. I had to get to them."

When Villa and Kaplan got to the wreckage, they found Sun Valley resident Brian R. Griffin, 55, lying dead about 750 feet from the top, his 2004 red Chevrolet Tahoe wheels up in the creek bed farther down, leaking gasoline where it stopped at the base of a waterfall.

A police report states Griffin was headed uphill on Trail Creek Road, about two miles away from the end of the paved portion of the road, at about 12:30 p.m. when he went off the left side, in an area free of trees.

Traffic on the roadway was light—a few bicycle riders, the odd car. A father held the hands of two little girls, who were gingerly taking in the view, unaware that just around the bend from where they stood in awe, life had been lost in an instant.

Though the road is marked as mostly one lane, the area where Griffin's SUV went off was fairly wide and the curve gentle compared to other sections.

The Blaine County Sheriff's Office's early investigation has drawn no conclusions about why the vehicle left the road and reported only that Griffin had been alone and was headed out for a hike when it happened. The Tahoe rolled numerous times and he was ejected. It appeared he was not wearing a seatbelt.

Kaplan said seeing Griffin down there took him back to his own accident a few years ago when he lost control of his motorcycle in the mountains near his home in Turkey.

"I've been there," he said. "Laying there thinking, 'What am I going to do and who is going to find me?' I had a phone [then], but phones don't work here."

Villa remained at the scene below while Kaplan went up to wait for help and tell his friends what happened. Grapa and Daniel Tranca, both from Romania, had stayed up top and flagged down a westbound car to ask the driver to phone for help.

"It's our day off and my first time out here," Grapa said. "Jose said, 'Come on, we'll do something fun, we'll see some waterfalls, take some pictures. It'll be great. It turned out not so great.'"


As the three sat on the ambulance bumper making notes for the investigators, an SUV pulled up with two women who ran to the trio and embraced them.

"Oh my god, are you alright?" Shannon King asked, grabbing Grapa for a hug. "We saw you back behind us and then you didn't come and we came back and see you here. ... It must have happened right behind us. I feel so bad for whoever is down there."

Renata Chetto, of Brazil, shook as she embraced her friends.

"I was just saying how lucky we all are to have this beautiful place, this beautiful life," Chetto said. "It's just so sad. You can't take any moment for granted."

None of the witnesses recalled seeing a speeding or out-of-control vehicle before the accident, though Grapa said the tracks indicated there was some swerving before.

"I can't believe someone is down there," she said. "Even though I saw the dust, it was like smoke. I thought it was a fire at first. It's just hard to comprehend."

When Villa emerged from the canyon bottom with an injured knee and hands bloodied from trying to maneuver down and around the remote and rocky area, he brought pictures for investigators to review. Multiple valley agencies cooperated to figure out how to get Griffin's body out of there.

It was about three and a half hours after its arrival that the Ketchum Fire Department's Rope Rescue Team were able to get the victim out of the precarious rangeland.

"I had to claw my way out," Villa said, accepting aid from the paramedic. "It's very dangerous down there. You couldn't see anything from the road. There's no way to know how long it would have taken to find him if we hadn't."

Grapa asked Villa and Kaplan why they took the risk for a stranger.

"You think you are Superman or something?"

"I just knew someone would want to know what happened to him," Kaplan said, refusing a drink of water despite the searing heat. He was observing Ramadan and on a fast. "It's sad for him, but I am glad we were there to find him for family."

The experience had the summer workers, who would be headed to their home countries in a few weeks, feeling philosophical.

"No matter what you believe, it's just so fortunate that someone saw him," Chetto said. "If you guys hadn't stopped to take a picture. ... You were meant to find him. It's very sad. But it makes you more appreciative of your time here on earth."

Jennifer Liebrum:

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