Helicopter 368 appeared below the rim of the Grand Canyon shortly after 9 a.m., its rotors chopping the desert air as the flight crew aimed for a sliver of beach along the Colorado River.
Ranger John Vonk peered down from the aircraft to locate five yellow rafts tethered below. Looking along the shoreline, he saw a tarp spread over the sand, its corners held down by rocks.
The silver plastic lining glistened in the light of a March morning, hiding the body beneath.
The helicopter landed in a cloud of dust near river mile 165 and Tuckup Canyon. Vonk removed his equipment and met the reporting party near its camp. Members of the group had spotted the body floating in the river’s primary current at 4:45 p.m. the day before.
With park rangers there to investigate, they recounted their discovery.
“There’s somebody in the river,” someone had yelled.
“They don’t have a life jacket on,” called another.
The body drifted river right, 15 yards from shore and just beyond the eddy line. It was fully clothed in a long tan coat, a purple fleece, pants, and a blue and green scarf. Only the boots were missing.
Alarmed by the discovery, the group scrambled for an inflatable ducky and a paddle. They dragged the boat to water’s edge and raced to grab a life jacket, hoping it might still be useful.
“Having the most experience in the boat, I opted to paddle out after the floating object,” one man told Vonk. “As I approached, I could see that it was a person floating face-down in the water with black hair.”
The river’s turbidity had risen on March 19 after a flash flood raged upstream. In the arid, sparsely vegetated terrain of northern Arizona, small storms can turn dry streambeds and slot canyons into raging torrents, bringing muddy flows down into the river.
The Colorado River had churned with the infusion of fresh storm water, but had since settled down to 8,000 cubic feet per second. The current’s push was endless and the man struggled with the body, unable to float it to shore. He rolled it over in the water and began the unsettling task of pulling it onto his ducky.
When he reached the riverbank, stepping from the 61-degree water, the man excused himself to be sick. The group surmised that the flash flood had dislodged the body from its resting place somewhere up the river. Lifesaving measures would not be necessary; time had not been kind to the remains.
“I grabbed the bottom of the pant legs and they each took a side on her shoulders, grabbed clothing and we lifted her onto the tarp,” one witness said. “We wrapped the tarp around her and placed rocks on the tarp to hold it in place.”
The group set the tarp above the high water mark, protecting it from any surges in the Colorado’s current. A satellite phone was used to call Grand Canyon National Park dispatchers and inform rangers of the discovery.
Park officials had been waiting months for the call.
“I walked to where the silver tarp was located on the spit of beach and took photographs of the scene and the tarp,” Vonk wrote in the official accident report. “I opened the tarp and noticed the strong (odor) of decomposition. In the tarp, I saw what I believed to be the body of a deceased female.”
Ranger Phillip Welch pulled on latex gloves and checked the body’s pockets – the pants, the outer jacket, the inner jacket. Most of the pockets were filled with sand. But in the left jacket pocket, Welch found a small red clip, a musical metering device and what he guessed was a bag of decomposing nuts.
Welch packaged the items as evidence and marked them accordingly. He logged his observations for his report, noting the time and date. The crew prepared the body for transport and, at 10:49 a.m., Helicopter 368 set off for the South Rim helibase with its precious cargo.
It would take another seven days before the Coconino County, Ariz., medical examiner would use dental records to identify the body as Kaitlin Kenney, a 21-year-old University of Montana student who had vanished 31 miles upstream on the Colorado River two months earlier.