November 5, 2013

Erich Fritz

In the high country of Colorado, around 10,000 feet above sea level, a small trickle of water forms. On one side, this trickle is La Poudre Pass Creek, a minor stream that works east towards the Atlantic Ocean, and it is so insignificant as to barely get mention, other than as the "Other Side" of its twin. Here, among the aspens and pines, with the sounds of elk bleating in the distance and the wind blowing, you find a trickle of water barely deep enough to wet the ankles of an adult man. The water is shallow, it is cold, and it offers no glimpse of how mighty a force it will be. The other side, the twin, is the stream that forms the Colorado River. Over a quarter of a million square miles of land drains to the Colorado. It is the principle waterway of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico. The Colorado River serves as a source of hydroelectric power, irrigation, and municipal water for nearly 40 million people (more than three times the population of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston... Combined.) It stretches for 1,450 miles, or slightly less than the distance from San Francisco to Omaha, Nebraska. And it's the source of recreation for thousands of people with the skill, bravery, and willingness to climb into a raft or kayak or a canoe and float down stream.

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Erich Fritz was a remarkable guy, evident to anyone that met him, and obvious from a young age. His mother mentioned how bright he was at a young age, telling the story of when Erich "learned all my colors, Mama... This is blue, this {pointing to a splotch of red} is not blue!" Erich, being the only boy, didn’t always get along with his three sisters: Gretchen, Elsbeth, Hannele. One might think that the eight – year difference between Erich and Hannele would have been an issue but as time went on, this age difference lost its significance and their bond strengthened. As an adult, Hannele moved to Colorado to be with her brother. When he was in elementary school, he decided that he was going to be a cowboy. Later, he wanted to be a lawyer, so he could “make a lot of money and take care of” mom and dad. Erich traveled to South Korea to teach English there. Always wanting to help others, he used the money he’d saved to buy his father a round – trip ticket to Seoul. Later, he completed an EMT class in Albany, Indiana, so his passion and drive to help others could continue. He was the first person to notice a problem with a new piece of medical equipment when, working in the Emergency Department in Colorado as a Tech, he was insistent on telling his supervisor that the new Intravenous needles were defective. “Jeanne”, he told his boss, “You don’t understand. I’m the best IV starter here, and I can’t get these ***** things to work!” Later, the manufacturer sent a letter to the hospital: “Thank you for contacting us regarding a problem… Glue was identified on the hub, which caused the non-retraction experienced… an improved system is being incorporated….” If you’ve ever used a BD Medical System Intravenous needle, you can thank Erich Fritz for making them better. That’s the degree of help he gave. That drive to help would manifest itself once again, in a land miles away, with no sirens, no dispatchers, and nobody else to assist.

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Ten miles east of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, the river enters the section known to boaters as Grizzly Creek. The water was flowing around 11,000 cfs – river flow is measured in Cubic Feet per Second, and this is often as much an educated guess as it is an objective measurement – and perversely for some rivers a lower flow (or “lower water” can result in more difficult navigation, while larger flow rates (“high water”) make the same section easy to manage. Just below the Reverse Curve in this section, there are riffles and currents that can be tricky in low water, but this day, the water was high. Erich was in the canoe with his father, his sister Hannele, and his dog. Erich was trying to perfect his paddle strokes with Bob and his efforts were successful – in turning the canoe completely around. This perspective gave them the spectacular view of the Colorado sun shining on the mountains and canyon back up the river. Enjoying the view, Erich remarked, “Well! that’s why we turned around.” Erich and Bob turned the canoe back around. Further down the river they were unable to avoid a rough patch of water. A big wave came into the canoe turning it slightly and all four spilled into the water. Bob surfaced and was able to latch onto the canoe as was Erich. Hannele was sucked under the water many times. Erich released the canoe to help her. Hannele got sucked under the water again. The next time Hannele surfaced, Erich was right beside her and got her hand on the canoe but Hannele got sucked under the water again. When she surfaced, again, Erich was right beside her and pushed her toward the south bank. His mother later said “ I’m convinced that Erich gave no thought to saving his sister Hannele’s life. He just did it. He authored that Best Brother Manual and he lived it. I am grateful beyond words.” After Erich pushed Hannele toward safety and before she could grab onto anything on the bank, Hannele turned and saw Erich go under the water. Hannele then got ahold of something and pulled herself out.

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 Past Colorado, past Utah, the Colorado River enters Arizona. Over the millennia, the river made a mark on the landscape. Perhaps no force on Earth is as relentless and constant as a river tracing a path to the ocean. In the case of the Colorado, the path covered a soft bed of red sandstone. For nearly 18 million years, the Colorado wore away at the rock, taking small specks of dust with each gallon of water, flowing slowly, steadily, undauntedly, eternally toward the sea. Each speck of dust, each stone, each clump of earthen clay yielded way to the never ending flow of water. Winters brought snow to the mountains of Colorado, spring brought sun to melt the snow, and summer rains added to the melting snowpack, turning the little creek from La Poudre Pass into the river that formed the Grand Canyon… a chasm that stretches 18 miles wide, 6000 feet deep, and 277 miles long. It was formed by the Colorado River.

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 The Trident Foundation Dive Recovery Team out of Fort Collins, Colorado, did a sonar survey of the Shoshone Reservoir, downstream of the accident, but found nothing. Later that year, Xcel energy (who runs the hydroelectric plant down river) drained the reservoir for an unrelated maintenance issue, and the search was on again, but the results were the same. Ten years on, Erich’s body has never been found. He leaves behind two children, Noah James (15 years old at the time of publication) and Emily Blue, who turns 13 in February. Erich gave to his community. He gave to those who needed help, and he did so because that’s just what folks like him do. To honor that tradition, his family created the Erich Fritz Memorial Scholarship. It is the Fritz Family’s desire that the recipient of the Scholarship use the award to further her / his education in any of the many medical or healing arts professions. Please donate to the Erich Fritz Memorial Scholarship and help me honor the memory of a fine man who lost his life saving his sister’s life.

1 comment:

Johanna said...

Erich holds an enormous place in my heart. We dated for years but remained friends even after. My husband loved him too. He was an extraordinary man. His whole family had a profound affect on me, opening my eyes to an open-minded, loving way of life.

Thank you for this post. May he be forever remembered.

Jodi Wolfe