No Way Out Video: Scary Concrete Rivers

December 16, 2010 § 3 Comments

It’s the wet season, so I figure it’s a good time to share the video No Way Out. Part 1 is above; part 2 is after the jump. The video was created in 1993, largely in response to the February 12th 1992 drowning death of a San Fernando Valley 15-year-old named Adam Bischoff. Bischoff, pictured below, is one of dozens of youth who’ve lost their lives in Los Angeles’ concreted waterways.

On a rainy day, Bischoff got into the concrete Calabasas Creek. Heavy flows quickly washed him miles downstream, into the Los Angeles River. Despite a heroic L.A. Fire Department mobilization to save him, Bischoff perished. His body was recovered in the Sepulveda Basin.

The incident did a great deal to drive awareness of local drowning dangers, and helped spur local emergency responders to create more robust Swift Water Rescue units. The 14-minute No Way Out video is shown in classrooms to teach L.A. youth about the seriousness of  drowning dangers in our innocuous-looking waterways.  

Here’s part two of No Way Out:

Adam Bischoff drown in the rain-swollen Los Angeles River channel in February 1992. Photo from Higgins and Langley Awards website.

The No Way Out video was created by Nancy Rigg, who, in 1980, lost her fiancé Earl Higgins to the Los Angeles River. Higgins helped to rescue a youth who had fallen into the river; in doing so, he was swept in and killed. That event occurred at the Sunnynook Footbridge in Atwater Village.

The tragedy changed the direction of Nancy Rigg’s life. She became a tireless champion of swiftwater rescue programs, drowning victim support, and public education on the dangers of  concrete waterways.

In addition to No Way Out, Riggs created the Danger! Debris Flow video – with impressive footage of and chilling tales of serious debris flows in Los Angeles canyon washes. I’ve read about L.A.’s debris flow in John McPhee’s The Control of Nature, but watch the vid and you’ll get a sense for what they look like.

I also recommend listening to this recent radio piece where KPCC’s Madeleine Brand reunites Rigg with the now-adult James Ventrillo – the youth Higgins saved at the cost of his own life.

The bottom line is that L.A.’s concrete river/creek channels are indeed dangerous – and especially deadly during wet weather.   The power of the Los Angeles River’s high water flow is massive, impressive, terrific; a force to be respected and feared. The video explains multiple factors that contribute to the danger; it’s not just the rushing water, but also debris, contaminants, dangerous currents around structures, and more.

A few creek freaks I know hate these videos. Though I think that the videos are important and worthwhile, I, too, bristle at them. The words creek and river are nearly absent; everything is a “flood control channel” or a “storm drain.” The overall message is “stay away at all times.” Clearly that’s not the language that I use, nor the message that I emphasize – though, especially when I lead river tours for school children, I do stress that the river can be dangerous, especially during wet weather.

I think that there are many places where we creek freaks can find common ground with No Way Out’s proponents. The concreting of the Los Angeles River included straightening it; because it’s steeper and has fewer curves, the river flows at higher speeds. Natural rivers (where drownings do happen) have variation: some areas move swiftly, other areas are nearly still. Concrete channels are designed to flow with uniform rapid flow, with no eddies and no refuges. All in all, concretization took an already often-dangerous river and engineered it into a more deadly one. As we plan and design to restore and revitalize our creeks and rivers, we need to prioritize safety. As we naturalize, we can bring back some of those eddies and meanders that can provide refuge. We can add structures that support rescue efforts. We can include features such as sirens and patrols that can help ensure folks leave the river when its waters rise. 

Awareness is also critical. In No Way Out, Adam’s sister Carrie Bischoff says “I didn’t even know there were rivers around here.” When flood control proponents concreted the river and fenced it off, the river largely disappeared from most Angelenos’ consciousness. This forgetting has disconnected us from both the benefits and the hazards of waterways. As creek freaks help raise awareness of what’s great about our rivers, we need to also show their dangers. Watch these videos, and be aware.

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