The Day We Saw a Man Die

Momservation: Tragedy always has a stronger hand than invincibility.

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I was scared. Scared because it was a deep, unsettling feeling of foreboding like a knife tip pressed into my heart waiting to plunge.

Earlier when I had jogged around the beautiful alpine lake that should have enveloped me in peace, instead I felt compelled to pray that everyone playing in its tranquil water that day would be safe.

I guess I didn’t pray hard enough.

But that’s what I was doing as our MasterCraft boat sped over the waters of Little Grass Valley Reservoir, the lake nearly to ourselves on a blue-bird summer day in the heart of camping season: Praying fiercely because something felt deeply, strangely, unnerved in me.

We were racing over the calm waters to a rock outcropping at the head of the dam. My dare-devil son had spotted it earlier while cruising the lake on a WaveRunner and had identified it for his next great leap.

“Dad, I found a place to jump,” Logan excitedly reported.

“Is it safe?”

This was always the first question we asked our nearly 20 year-old son, Logan, since trying to talk him out of jumping off things into bodies of water had become useless at this age of seeming invincibility.

“It looks pretty good,” he reported. “It’s a sheer cliff and looks pretty deep, but I brought a swim mask to check for depth and snags.”

“How high is it?”

“Maybe 60 feet,” he guessed. His dad let out a heavy sigh but Logan pressed. “It’s the same height as my jump last year at Emerald Pools.”

“Are we going to be able to leave this lake without you jumping off it?” his dad asked already knowing the answer.

“Probably not,” Logan charmingly grinned.

So a plan was made to go watch him jump, hoping our best hedge against catastrophe was supervision. Somehow we felt our presence could stave off disaster.

My husband didn’t like Logan’s cliff jumping any more than I did, but after a year away at college where he added a horde of unsupervised jumps to his leaping resume, we felt all we could do was remind him to take absolute precaution. We tried to take comfort in knowing he had dozens of safe rock, bridge, and cliff jumps under his belt in his signature gainer style—so many that we had joked that he could achieve social media infamy as Gainer Guy.

I was always nervous when I watched him, since the age of 10, test his abilities to land the perfect gainer—usually to a crowd hooting and hollering their impressed delight. But he never messed up. Never. And so I slowly, grudgingly accepted this unique talent of his, my nervousness with his choice of extreme sport tempered with pride in his abilities.

But I still didn’t like it. I never liked it. Every jump to me was a dare wagered with fate. When you take unnecessary risk, over and over, at some point your lucky streak ends. Despite his skill (missing a calling as a talented diver), caution, and common sense (he would abort if conditions weren’t perfect), as a mother I hated that my son couldn’t resist the temptation of an epic leap into a body of water.

Even as the jumps got higher (60 feet) and tricks got added to his repertoire (double back flips and front flips), and my anxiety for his safety kept me urging him to retire from this hobby, I never felt the raw fear I felt that day as our boat full of people and two WaveRunners zoomed over to watch his latest escapade.

“Please Lord, have your guardian angels watch over Logan and keep him safe,” I silently prayed hoping my line to God would be direct in His majestic alpine cathedral. Literally shaking with fear of premonition I also tried enlisting the heavenly troops directly. “Sommar, Floyd, Bob, Uncle Billy…please, please be there with Logan and keep him safe,” I prayed to those I loved in Heaven.

“Is that the jump?” someone in the boat marveled as we pulled up to the granite cliff.

“I don’t know, that’s pretty high,” someone else warned.

“Logan, I don’t think this is a good idea,” I said. But I always said that so my protest fell on deaf ears.

My son put on a life vest, grabbed the swim mask and dove in to check the depth at the base and scan for underwater hazards like rocks jutting out or snags of wood.

“Why did he put on a life vest to jump?” one of the young girls in our boat asked.

I was afraid to say the words out loud, afraid to jinx the jump, but with young, impressionable friends there they had to know the most important safety factor in Logan’s jumping routine.

“Because if the jump goes wrong and he gets knocked out or hurt so he can’t swim, it’s to keep him from sinking to the bottom and drowning,” I said. With a crack in voice I added, “It’s to save his life.”

“Looks good,” Logan said resurfacing. It’s not what I wanted to hear. I wanted a reason to abort.

As he climbed out of the water and easily scrambled up the wooded side of the cliff his audience grew quiet as he grew smaller, dwarfed by the size of his rock diving board.

“Do you have room for take-off?” his dad nervously called as Logan circled a small tree assessing his launch pad, kicking loose rocks aside so he wouldn’t slip.

“Yeah,” he called back but he didn’t sound confident. In fact, his pacing and peering over the edge and taking longer to initiate his jump made me almost frantic with fear because I could see he was hesitant—which is the first ingredient in disaster.

Suddenly we heard a voice shout from the top of the dam: “Hey! Someone’s going to jump!”

Again, this wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I didn’t want an eager audience influencing my son’s decision on whether this was still a safe jump.

As Logan grabbed a handful of loose rocks to toss over the edge, first to judge the distance, then to use to break the water right before his leap, two men were quickly climbing to the top of the cliff from the direction of the dam.

They were scrawny and didn’t seem to have the dexterity of my son as they clumsily scaled the rocks. I guessed they were in their late 20’s, local, and probably been drinking by the way they laughed and heckled with their buddies on the dam directing them where to go. “No, not there. Higher to the left.”

One was in long, board shorts with no shirt and the other wore a cut-off red shirt with his swim trunks.

“I’m going to do a gainer!” Red Shirt yelled to my son who was 40 feet away on the higher apex, but he was still having trouble finding his footing.

“Me too!” Logan yelled back.

As I shakily held the camera up to begin filming you can hear me whisper, “I’m so scared.”

My sons last jump on July 27, 2019 at Little Grass Valley Reservoir

Logan took a step back and threw the rocks as he launched himself, immediately arching backward toward the cliff in a long, slow, gainer.

“My baby! My baby!” I cried out when it looked like he wouldn’t complete the flip before hitting the water. Death wasn’t the only danger. A life jacket will keep you from drowning, it won’t save you from paralysis.

At the last moment, Logan straightened and landed his flip, albeit not perfectly. We collectively held our breath until he resurfaced. He quickly breached the water, gave a fist pump and everyone laughed and cheered in relief.

“All done, get the hell in the boat, we’re out of here,” my husband yelled, finally showing his anxiety.

Logan swam over and got in the boat as the guy with no shirt jumped from the cliff into the water. His crew on the shore hooted their approval and started heckling the other to jump.

Now in the boat, Logan shouted his encouragement as the guy’s buddy waited in the water below. “Send it!” Our boat watched 40 feet away with nervous anticipation. The two 14 year-olds with us idled on their WaveRunners waiting expectantly.

The man in the red shirt leaped into a gainer. He under rotated over the long distance similar to Logan, but unlike my son, did not straighten up at the last second, landing with a sickening slap.

“Ooohhhhh!” Everyone groaned in unison from boat to shore. Some laughed nervously thinking he pulled it off but maybe hit a sensitive part of his anatomy.

As his buddy swam the few feet over to where he should be resurfacing, I gripped the bow of the boat and frantically started counting seconds when he didn’t immediately surface.

When three seconds went by I started shouting,” He’s not coming up! He’s not coming up! Someone go get him!”

His buddy dove down. When he resurfaced a few moments later his stricken face showed what my sinking heart knew. In disbelief and shock he called to the men on shore.

“He’s gone! He’s gone, man!”

I turned to Logan who still had his life vest on. “Grab your goggles! Get over there! Hurry!”

But in my racing heart I already knew, as our silent boat knew, and the frightened boys on the WaveRunners knew. He had sunk to the bottom of what Logan had guessed was about 35 feet, the air likely knocked out of him when he hit wrong—without a life vest.

“DO NOT take off your life jacket!” I called to Logan worrying he might try to be a hero. “Don’t dive too deep!” I called to the other man who kept diving down and popping back up in frantic disbelief, now grabbing the rock face in fear. I didn’t want any more drownings.

The man in the water, shocked and stunned, just kept saying, “He’s gone!”

I heard someone from shore yell, “Are you kidding me, man? Are you joking?” the anxiety in his voice hoping for the right answer. Soon that man was over where Red Shirt had disappeared, diving down, clinging to the rock in disbelief, out of breath from so many exploratory dives.

As our group scanned the water, desperately hoping to see a red shirt float to the surface on a man who could somehow be saved, another boat pulled up and sent a man with a snorkel and mask over to help search.

When a handful of minutes went by with still no sighting, I turned to look into the faces of our boat for what to do. The trauma of what we had just witnessed—a man leaping to his death—was evident on every face from 14 to 50 years old.

I had to do something. “Give me my phone!” I shouted to the boat driver who had shut down the music as soon he realized we were in the midst of a tragedy. “I’m going to try to call 911.”

“You know this lake doesn’t have cell reception,” someone said.

“I know, but Jen had a text come through in the middle of the lake yesterday. Maybe I can get a signal.” I tried and tried to get through to no avail while scanning the waters. Giving up I screamed to the other boats and people who had collected around the scene, “Call 911! Someone go get help!” hoping maybe someone else would have better luck, knowing the other option was three miles away at a pay phone in town. I strapped on a life vest, ready to jump in the water and start searching the shoreline near the dam for a red shirt—certain that if he hadn’t sunk all the way to the bottom, maybe his body was being pulled toward the spillway.

That sent my husband into action. Seeing the stricken faces of the kids with us, he knew he had to get them out of there. No matter how this turned out, it wasn’t going to be good.

“Whitney, get on the WaveRunner with Quinn and go find the sheriff patrolling the lake,” he instructed our daughter. He turned to the boy on the other WaveRunner. “Carson, go with them and get help back at the beach.” They zoomed off in search of help.

He next yelled to the futile search scene. “Logan, get back to the boat.”

When my son got back in the boat, the magnitude of knowing a mother just lost her son hit me. I collapsed and starting crying. My son came over to comfort me, wrapping me in his arms.

“It could have been you,” I wept. “It could have been you.”

“I know,” he comforted his voice quivering with awareness, “I know.” And sadly, tragically, I knew he finally got it. He finally understood the unnecessary risk he had been taking in the name of adventure, was not worth the pain and heartbreak that reverberates when it all goes wrong.

We eventually left the scene knowing there was nothing else we could do to help, deciding instead to go into damage control for the young witnesses of a tragic death.

As the sheriff boat went zooming past us toward the dam my prayers switched direction again. With the sound of approaching sirens from shore, that my daughter and Quinn were able to summon, I prayed for the Lord to bless the soul of the man in the red shirt who was likely on the bottom of the lake. I prayed Search & Rescue would find him quickly for those who loved him (including his brother who it turned out was encouraging the jump from shore and who I prayed wouldn’t blame himself).

And I prayed to the man himself, whom I would later find out from a news article on his death, was named Michael Tabor, a 32 year-old man from Sacramento (his body retrieved the following day).

“I’m sorry you had to die so that my son would live,” I said aloud as I cried, heartbroken that my earlier prayers had not kept him safe as well. “I’m sorry it took your death to likely save the lives of two impressionable young boys who were eagerly planning to follow in my son’s adventurous footsteps. I will forever remember you and pray for the family and friends you leave behind…because I will always be grateful that you made my son finally say these words:

“‘It’s okay, Mom. It’s okay. I am retired from jumping.’”

 

#DontJump   #ItsNotWorthIt  #RIPMichaelTabor

8 comments

  1. Regan R Johnson says:

    Oh my god, Kelli. What a horrible event to bear witness to. I feel myself crying right along with you because I have a son. And I have a grandson. I can imagine the deep, sinking feeling you get when things all go wrong. Young men do not have that switch in their brains that tells them STOP when there is more risk than reward. I’m happy that Logan has retired from his harebrained jumping career. Take comfort in the fact that he is smart (or, seems to be smart), and considerate. It’s a hard lesson that they don’t teach in school. Best wishes for cooler rest of the summer and fun times. Maybe someone with some responsibility will post some signs. One never knows what lurks beneath the surface.

    • kellimwheeler says:

      Yes, Regan, the boys seem more prone to push the envelope when it comes to risk vs reward. And they don’t see how selfish it can be to risk your life in the name of adventure not thinking of the repercussion and trail of broken hearts it will leave if fate isn’t on your side. It makes me absolutely sick that this was the way Logan was forced to reprogram his thinking, but you are right – he is a smart, sensitive, loving kid and so this lesson took hard. It was a great camping trip, and a wonderful summer, but now we will always think of Michael Tabor when we remember the Summer of 2019. And when we go back to this lake to camp next summer, I will personally put a warning at the base of that rock so that Michael can keep saving lives.

  2. Ginny Dowd says:

    Kelli, What a heartbreaking and terrifying story. Thank you for sharing. We have a friend who has spent his life in a wheel chair from his diving accident. Melia’s good friend injured his back a year ago and hasn’t quite recovered yet. Brian, in his mountaineering adventures, evaluates risk as a balance of likelihood and consequence. The likelihood of Logan getting hurt is small but the consequence if things go wrong are enormous. I am so glad to hear that he will be finding less risky adventures. He has a lifetime of them ahead!

    • kellimwheeler says:

      Thanks for taking the time to share, Ginny. My mom, who worked in an ICU and saw many young men gravely injured from risky decisions, has always been worried about Logan paralyzing himself – an adventurous, active guy stuck in a body that doesn’t work. Just as frightening as losing him. I hope Logan settles into a healthy balance of risk/adventure like Brian. One of my friends wondered aloud if he should go into Search & Rescue which I thought would be a great channeling of his adventurous spirit and kind heart. I don’t want the adventures to stop – just be smart about it. And there is nothing smart about back flipping off a 60 ft cliff where a centimeter mistake can cost you so much.

  3. Gale Burton says:

    Oh Kelli,
    Thank you for sharing. This is so sad. I’m glad Logan has decided not to do this anymore. I pray every night tha God sends Nicky Boy’s grandpa to watch over and help him make wise decisions!
    I understand.

    • kellimwheeler says:

      Thanks Gale. I am so relieved too. I’m glad you talk with your guardian angels too – we can use all the help we can get! And I always pray: Lord, let my kids learn from the mistakes and please don’t let their bad decisions be something they can’t recover from. I do believe God was listening to me on this one, but I absolutely ache for Michael’s family that his decision proved fatal.

    • kellimwheeler says:

      Oh, that breaks my heart even more, Kara. I’m so sorry for your loss and those girls who don’t have their dad anymore. We’ve been searching for more info on Michael so that we could know him in life rather than death. I’m so sorry you lost a great man and we couldn’t do more to save him. Peace be with Michael’s friends and family.

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