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Woman's drowning brings attention to rafting regulation

Published On: Feb 22 2013 07:53:57 AM CST
Updated On: Mar 26 2013 02:04:38 PM CDT
MENOMINEE COUNTY, Wis. -

A Middleton woman drowned on a summer rafting trip and her family says it didn't have to happen.

News 3 Investigates found there are no regulations requiring rafters wear life jackets in Wisconsin.

Lina Vergara drowned last year on a segment of the Wolf River in northwest Wisconsin rated "difficult" by an international rating system. Her body was discovered by Shawano County Sheriff's deputies 15 hours after she disappeared.

Vergara and her boyfriend rented equipment from Shotgun Eddy's and signed a release recognizing the risks of rafting and recommending they wear life jackets. Vergara wore a lifejacket, but it popped off when she fell in.

Her death is one of 23 boating deaths reported in Wisconsin in 2012. In more than half the cases, the victim wasn't wearing a life jacket. Vergara was one of two rafters who died on Wisconsin's Wolf River.

Todd Schaller with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said state boating laws don't require lifejackets.

"That would be one simple step in this particular case that would greatly reduce dying or drowning in that environment," he said.

Unlike boating, rafting is not regulated and doesn't require an operator's license.

Wisconsin’s law does require life jackets if you’re under 13-years-old on federal waters or on a jet ski. And there has to be enough of them in a boat for everyone on board.

In 2009, then Senator Jim Sullivan introduced a bill making anyone under 12-years-old wear a life jacket on Wisconsin’s waters. That failed twice in the legislature. And there’s no known attempt to reintroduce it now.

But a Tribal Enforcement and Resource Protection Committee member has said he’ll address the Vergara’s concerns at a future meeting since Shotgun Eddy’s is on the Menominee Reservation. 

Certifications for guides are common in western states where boating deaths are nearly half of Wisconsin's 2012 total.

Vergara's father, Alejandro Vergara, said they wanted to do something to help other's avoid Lina's fate.

“We’re not asking for much, but precautions for the future for other people, like my sister, who want to enjoy the tourism in Wisconsin, but also do it in a safe manner,” said Lina’s older sister, Coni Duhr. 

The family started an online petition proposing safety changes, like hired guides, lifeguards and helmets. Nearly 3,000 people signed it.

Shotgun Eddy's co-owner Brian Peters declined to be interviewed for this story.

In May, the family is hosting the ‘Glowing Smiles’ 5K run/walk in Lina’s memory. It costs $25 a person and runners will wind through Middleton’s Pheasant Branch Conservancy.

The money will be donated to create the Lina Vergara Memorial Scholarship at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh where she was a student studying elementary education. For more information, click www.linavergara.com

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