Recovering the bodies of three people from Crescent Falls, near Nordegg, was an onerous two-day effort for members of Rocky Mountain House Search and Rescue, police and fire crews.
Hardest for many of the recovery workers was seeing the faces of the three young children who were waiting on the river bank, said search and rescue president Ed Van Heeren.
The children had lost both of their parents, as well as a 25-year-old student visiting from Pakistan, after all three adults drowned in the Bighorn River on Tuesday evening.
Van Heeren added, “The rescuers are used to dealing with people who have drowned, but seeing these little kids sitting on the side of the river… I heard that was one of the worst things.”
The children, ages 10, six and three, have since been connected with relatives in Edmonton.
The family from Alberta’s capital was sightseeing west of Nordegg when the tragedy struck around 7:30 p.m.
Van Heeren stressed that nobody had been swimming in the river beneath the falls — that was a false report.
The young student from overseas was standing in the shallow, calm-looking waters at the edge of the river — just beneath the highest of the two waterfalls — so someone could take his photograph from the river bank.
The young man took a step backwards, lost his balance because of a steep dropoff in the sandbar, and was pulled beneath the water by a strong undertow.
The same powerful current overwhelmed the father of the family after he tried to rescue the young man. Then the mother was also dragged under when she entered the water to help. Both were 38 years old.
Van Heeren said the children, who had watched the tragedy, screamed for help. Other tourists called 911 — although they first had to drive to get within cellphone range.
Search and rescue workers received the emergency call at about 8 p.m.
They were able to recover two people from the river on Tuesday evening before darkness fell. Despite resuscitation efforts, the victims could not be revived.
The third body was recovered from the Bighorn River on Wednesday by search and rescue workers who entered the fast-flowing water secured by safety lines.
Van Heeren said he hopes this “freak accident” will teach others that Crescent Falls and many other beautiful spots in the West Country wilderness are inherently treacherous.
Sometimes, tourists are lulled by the postcard quality of such places and are caught off guard by steep dropoffs and undercurrents: “People get wrapped up in the awe and beauty and don’t take the dangers into account … but the power of water is more than anybody can overcome.”
He maintains no one should enter the water around waterfalls, even when it appears calm and shallow at the edges.