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Antelope canyon accountability

Drowning in the desert is among the least probable ways to perish, but it happens, as proven so horribly eight weeks ago when 11 vacationers died in a flash flood during an afternoon traipse through a popular slot canyon on an Indian reservation.

While tragedy this substantial often triggers public soul-searching and policy reviews by the institutions most directly involved, there is little evidence of such reaction in this case, which is complicated by elements of race and differences in culture.It's almost business as usual at Antelope Canyon, just outside the small hotel-and-restaurant town of Page on the banks of Lake Powell, where $15 today will gain unguided and uninformed admittance to a beautiful but potentially treacherous attraction.

While reform in how the canyon is managed has been suggested, calls for change have been neither loud nor pressing, a circumstance some say is all too typical of such incidents.

"There is a startling amount of apparent inattention to these kinds of matters," said Robert S. Clark, a Salt Lake attorney who in 1994 won a large settlement against the federal government for its negligence in two drowning deaths at Zion National Park.

At Antelope Canyon, similar questions of liability will almost certainly be raised.

Today, the lower portion of the canyon where the incident of Aug. 12 occurred has been closed indefintely by the canyon's Navajo managers, who collect revenue off admittance to the tribe-owned site.

But a few miles above that spot, in equally spectacular reaches, accessibility remains as available as ever.

Two weeks ago, as remnants of Hurricane Nora swept across northern Arizona, a cashier at an upper Antelope Canyon tribal toll booth took $5 from visitors, who promptly proceeded upriver with a driver who charged $10 for a short ride to the opening of a narrow arroyo.

Little or no information was offered by the hosts, who presented only a colorful brochure touting the canyon's history and beauty. A few small signs posted since the August drownings advised - in English - of the possibility of flash floods.

In short order, a half-dozen middle-aged and elderly visitors from Denmark arrived, accompanied by a Slim Pickens cowboy look-alike who walked them through the canyon, pointing out its features.

The guide, whose company is among three in Page that share their fee of about $40 per client with the Navajo Nation toll collectors, talked briefly about the power and speed of flash floods but made no mention of Aug. 12.

None of the Danes spoke good English, none had heard of the drownings, none seemed particularly aware of the threatening skies overhead. They wandered slowly along the floor of the crooked and cramped canyon, gazing up its 100-foot walls, pushing into the dark depths of the quarter-mile-long slot.

The group lingered for an hour with their guide and a handful of solo visitors. Then they made their serpentine way back to the narrow mouth, reboarded their van and moved downriver again, even as rain began to fall.

Those killed on Aug. 12 - nine Europeans and two Americans, from New Orleans - died under circumstances that are still disputed.

Their guide was the group's sole survivor, found in the wake of the flood clinging to a ledge, naked and badly battered.

Leaders of the Navajo Nation - which holds title to the canyon - have insisted that their toll-booth operator at Antelope Canyon told the doomed party to get out of the canyon because of an upriver thunderstorm but that the advice was ignored. Skies over the canyon were clear at the time.

Administrators at TrekAmerica, the California-based company sponsoring the group, have insisted no such warning was issued before a wall of water swept unexpectedly through the canyon after being spawned by a storm 15 miles upriver.

On Sept. 29, the Coconino County Sheriff's Office in Flagstaff released a formal report saying the ticket-taker warned tour members against going into the canyon but did not order them out.

Investigators concluded than no one associated with the tragedy would face charges, a development that suggests any legal fallout is more likely to unfold through civil action.

Since the drownings, neither Navajo leaders nor TrekAmerica have shed much light on the incident, reluctant to talk, perhaps, because of potential liability and impending lawsuits by survivors of the victims.

Clarence Gorman, parks and rec-re-a-tion director for the Navajo Nation's tribal headquarters in Window Rock, refused to comment last week, referring queries to the tribe's risk management director, who did not return phone calls.

Similarly, Tony Church, operations manager for the New Jersey-incorporated TrekAmerica's southwest headquarters in Gardena, Calif., hung up abruptly when a reporter called to question him last week.

Perhaps the most noted reaction by either party appeared in the Navajo Times, a tribal newspaper published at Window Rock, which drew criticism when, shortly after the drownings, it ran a controversial editorial cartoon making jest of the tragedy, shading it with an arguably racist tone.

The cartoon depicted a tourist being swept away by a flash flood while saying, "Oh, shucks, I didn't even make it to the Navajo Nation." The newspaper's editor said the drawing was meant as a general criticism of "Anglos," the area's popular term for non-Navajos, who are often criticized by Navajos for their insensitivity toward Indian culture.

Navajo President Albert Hale - and the newspaper - promptly apologized for the cartoon.

Community leaders and residents of mostly "Anglo" page have been markedly quiet about the incident, noting that the flood occurred on Navajo land, which is administered under the auspices of a sovereign Indian nation that is exempt from most county, state or federal interference.

Ron Anderson, a Coconino County sheriff's lieutenant whose Page office supervised the search for the drowning victims, said his staff since the incident has fielded "lots of complaints" concerning management of the canyon.

Anderson said that because of jurisdictional lines, however, the complaints have been quietly referred to tribal police, who did not return phone calls from a reporter. He declined to elaborate on the exact nature of the complaints, explaining that it would be inappropriate for him to do so because Navajo police claim law-enforcement suzerainty on reservation lands when it comes to matters associated with Navajo people.

In a power-sharing arrangement between the area's two distinct populations, county deputies enforce laws and conduct criminal investigations on Navajo land only when non-Indians are involved. Thus, the county investigated the drownings even as Navajo officers were said to be conducting a separate investigation.

Administrators at the adjacent Glen Canyon National Recreation Area say they have little say in how Antelope Canyon is operated.

"We do not have any authority to be involved," said Char Obergh, a management assistant for the federally run recreation area. Obergh said Glen Canyon's boundaries go only 20 feet beyond the highest-level shoreline of Lake Powell and do not include Antelope Canyon, which drains into the lake.

Nonetheless, concerns over how the Navajo Nation administers the canyon have surfaced - if only gingerly.

"I'm sure people have raised that question," said Julia Betz, executive director of the John Wesley Powell Museum and Visitor Information Center in Powell.

Though Betz said the Navajo Nation "can manage it however they see fit," she noted that the promotion of such attractions is a relatively new pursuit for reservation residents.

Antelope Canyon has been visited annually by thousands of tourists for many years, counting as many as 20,000 in 1996. Only since the early 1990s have Navajos started regularly collecting fees and advertising the site, however. Management of the canyon appears to be limited to those two activities; safety lec-tures are not included with the price of admission, and no upriver flood-alarm system is employed.

"They have to do something else besides collect money and let people go in," Betz said.

Joan Nevills-Staveley, executive director of the Page Chamber of Commerce, said some critics are more blunt, lamenting an apparent absence of accountability by Navajos toward tourists.

"People have made the comment that it's too bad someone doesn't run it more - properly, I guess would be the way to say it," Nevills-Staveley said.

"I'm not sure that that's valid (but) I believe there ought to be perhaps a warning system like that that's been talked about by the sheriff's department."

The canyon's Navajo managers, she noted, do not post sentinels upstream in the event of catastrophe, evidently working from the thesis that flash floods can be foretold by keeping a wary eye on the sky.

She said also that the canyon's new signs advising of the potential for floods should be bigger and should be posted in more than one language because many, and maybe most, of its visitors are from Europe and Asia.

Nevills-Staveley said that when she talked recently with Gorman - the tribe's parks and recreation director - she got disappointingly little assurance that any changes would be made.

"He said, `Well, I don't know what they're going to do over there . . . we're going to have a meeting and discuss it.' "

The response was decidedly more Indian than "Anglo."

"The Navajo, in their defense, do not say, `Don't do that.' They say, `I probably wouldn't do that . . . they're not a dogmatic folk,' " Nevills-Staveley said.

Such nuances are lost, perhaps, in crosscultural communications, creating misunderstandings that can be costly.

"When you're dealing with visitors - especially ones who don't speak English - you have to be pretty basic, you have to say `no,' " Nevills-Staveley said.

" `Maybe' doesn't translate very well."

Reform in how the canyon is managed - and liability determination for the August accident - might be influenced eventually by precedents elsewhere.

After a pair of Boy Scout leaders drowned in Zion National Park in 1993 while leading a backcountry expedition, the National Park Service paid a $1.79 million settlement to survivors. The Washington County Water Conservancy District, which was also a defendant in the action, chipped in another $750,000.

Both institutions, in agreeing to the payments, conceded fault for failing to warn the group that managers of an upriver reservoir on Kolob Creek had released large amounts of water from the reservoir, engorging the slot canyon where the group's leaders died.

The action spurred the Park Service to adopt a policy of warning Kolob Creek hikers of reservoir releases.

Another Zion tragedy, in 1961, sparked a substantial change in the park's management of the well-known Narrows section of the park, which resembles Antelope Canyon.

After five people from northern Utah died in that accident, the park implemented a flash-flood education campaign that is still in use today, and is so prominent as to be difficult for hikers to miss.

This history makes a strong case for putting the onus for warnings about outdoor-adventure dangers on landowners and managers, said Clark, the attorney who represented survivors of the Kolob Creek drownings.

"I don't think it's all that difficult to come up with something that gives a solid disclosure on the nature of something being undertaken," Clark said. "If weather factors are a consideration, people ought to be told how to get the most up-to-date information."

But Clark and others concede that no policy can protect everyone from the ravages of nature, and that hikers must ultimately take some responsiblity for themselves.

"A lot of people don't want to be told, `Don't get too close to a canyon rim because you might fall off,' " said Betz, the museum and information-center manager in Page.

"When someone tells you not to do something," she said, "you shouldn't do it."