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Woman's death on rafting trip leads to helmet bill

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Troutdale resident Sharon Birge died of brain trauma on Deschutes River.

CONTRIBUTED - Robert and Sharon Birge enjoy a tropical vacation in an undated photo.Sharon Birge died three weeks shy of her retirement.

The 67-year-old Boeing employee was thrown across a rubber boat during a guided trip down the Deschutes River on July 6, 2015. No one is sure what her head struck — an oar, maybe — but her brain began to swell and bleed. She passed away 10 days later.

Sharon's husband, their daughter and two grandchildren were on board as the raft tipped sideways. Robert Birge, a longtime union organizer, now lives alone in the Troutdale home they shared for decades.

The company behind the trip, Maupin-based High Desert River Outfitters, continues to market the Class 3 rapids as an "excellent introduction" to whitewater rafting on coupon-clipping site Groupon.

"Guides provide all necessary supplies, including life jackets, oars, paddles, dry bags, frames, and ropes," the ad promises.

But High Desert didn't provide a helmet in 2015, and the company's own Facebook feed shows customers routinely go without headgear to this day.

A new bill in Salem would change that.

Backed by East Multnomah County legislators Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson and Rep. Chris Gorsek, Senate Bill 643 requires all guided trip providers to offer helmets on Class 3 rapids and above.

"The doctors at (Oregon Health & Science University) said that if Sharon had been wearing a helmet, she would still be alive today," explained Shawna Wellman, Sharon's daughter. "If they would have been available, my mom would have had them on all five of us."

CONTRIBUTED - Robert and Sharon Birge had plans to travel after Sharon's retirement. Robert still lives in the Troutdale home they shared for decades.

At a public hearing in February, Rep. Gorsek, D-Troutdale, called the helmets provision a "modest standard" that has already been voluntarily adopted by most operators in the rafting industry.

"Realistically, the intent was to have everybody (wear) helmets, but you know how these bills work," he explained in a phone interview. "You come up with an idea, and then compromises and amendments come along, and you have to go with what will be palatable to everybody."

Previous versions of the bill would have made helmets mandatory for all river riders on Class III rapids age 17 or under. Those restrictions would have applied to all boating trips, not just commercial outfitters and other chartered tours.

They were nixed after pushback from operators and concerns about enforcement feasibility.

"You are taking river-specific risk management decisions out of the hands of outfitters and into the hands of lawmakers with little to no experience," wrote A.J. Meyers, the program coordinator for the nonprofit adventure company Peak 7. "On the rivers we run we see little to no injuries that would have been prevented had this rule been implemented and enforced."

A message left with High Desert River Outfitters has not been returned as of press time. According to the Oregon State Marine Board, the company never reported Sharon Birge's death and had at least one employee on duty that day who had never registered with the state agency.

Randy Henry, the state's boating safety program manager, says the Marine Board is pursuing a misdemeanor charge against High Desert for noncompliance.

"Talking to the outfitter guides, it's a matter of course that anytime they're in Class 4 or 5 rapids, they will helmet up if they're in an areas where there's rocks," Henry noted. "Class 3 is where most people feel like it starts to get serious."

Speaking to a reporter, Shawna Wellman described her mother as confident, the rock of a family that she always put first. She was the oldest of five siblings, a painter, a do-it-yourselfer always chasing the latest creative trend.

Birge was born in Spokane and graduated from The Dalles High School. At Boeing, she worked her way up from nurse to human resources to the company's Joint Programs, which oversees workplace safety and education. She loved to travel, and had already planned trips to Hawaii and New Zealand. Her sisters were her best friends, her daughter said, and the beach was her happy place.

That Monday in July, Birge couldn't remember how many children she had.

No one knew where or how badly she was hurt, so the family cradled her neck as they waited the long 45 minutes for an EMT to arrive to the remote area.

After an ambulance ride to a hospital in The Dalles, Birge was placed in a medically-induced coma for the Life Flight helicopter ride to Portland. She never woke up.

"She opened her eyes (close to) my birthday. I was hoping that would be my miracle," Wellman said through tears, noting that Birge donated her liver and two kidneys for others in need of healthy organs. "I'm angry that something so tragic could have been stopped."