Water was pounding knee-deep over one of the wooden footbridges at roaring Wapama Falls as Jesse Zachariah Williams tried to get across.
There was so much spray and water in the air he could not see the backpacker who set out to cross the same bridge moments before him. Williams was doing it for a thrill but he feared for his life as he noticed a 10-foot section of lower railing missing on the side of the bridge closest to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, about 200 feet below.
He went across. Moments later, he learned the man who went just before him was no longer on the bridge and did not make it to the other side, Williams told The Union Democrat in a phone interview from his North Carolina home.
A death certificate on file at the Tuolumne County Recorder’s Office identified the man as Douglas Schlittner, 67, of Huntington Beach. His body and belongings were found in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir on June 22.
Schlittner was a social worker for 30 years and a resident of Orange County for 45 years, the certificate states.
Williams said the falls were so loud and spray was so dense he could not hear anything other than rushing whitewater or see more than a couple feet in front of him.
“I crossed the first wooden section and I was scared out of my mind,” Williams said. “It was then that I realized that man was not there. I came to his friends and they were asking if I’d seen their friend. That was when I realized he must have fallen. That was when ultimate fear filled me. I knew I had to cross back again to get back to my mom.”
Williams, 31, said he and his mother, 58, were at Hetch Hetchy last week for a multi-day backpacking trip, from Hetch Hetchy to Lake Vernon to Tiltill Valley, east of Wapama Falls, then to Rancheria Falls.
“When we got to Lake Vernon we noticed the levels in Falls Creek were too high to cross,” Williams said. “It's the same water source for Wapama Falls at the top. So we came down a day earlier than we expected and spent a night at the backpackers camp at Hetch Hetchy.”
The next day they wanted to do a quick day hike, see Wapama Falls up close, and “see the bridge that everyone was saying was hairy to cross,” Williams said.
Williams and his mom did the short walk from the backpackers camp, across O’Shaughnessy Dam, through the tunnel, and less than three miles to Wapama Falls. There are wooden footbridges there that traverse the falls as they tumble into Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
“While we were there we watched two young males, they looked like they were in their 20s, go across in excitement,” Williams said. “They came back they said they didn’t think it was that powerful.”
That’s when a group of four backpackers decided to go. The man later identified as Schlittner was in that group.
They looked like fit men in their 60s, with up-to-date backpacking gear and they looked experienced, Williams said.
They all seemed like nice people. Williams and his mother spoke to them earlier on the trail before they reached Wapama Falls.
“Three of them made it safely to the middle section and waited on their friend,” Williams said. “Then their friend went and when he was out of sight that is when I decided to go. He seemed nervous about crossing but continued to follow after his buddies safely made it through.”
Williams said the bridge has two rails, one where hands would go and one about knee high “that could possibly brace you if you were to slip.”
As he crossed just above the entrance stairs into the gushing water he saw that the lower rail was missing.
“This must be where the man was swept in as that is where the water was the strongest,” Williams said.
Williams said he carried on, using all his strength to try to cross. His mom was trying to take photos of him.
Confirming the worst
Williams said he was frightened and cold, and the falls were so loud everyone was having to yell to make themselves heard.
Williams said he and the three backpackers returned the way they came, crossing one of the bridges back to safety. Williams he was freaked out and wanted to leave immediately. His mom told him she’d spent time talking with the man who was missing and she did not want to leave not knowing his fate.
“What was going through my mind is I was in kind of state of shock,” Williams said. “I was shaking with fear realizing how close I was to losing my life.”
The two young men who had crossed earlier began climbing down rocks in the falls to look for the missing man, Williams said.
“Twenty minutes later we saw his pack,” Williams said. “It looked dark blue, a dark color, and his tent. He had legit backpacking gear and it looked like a single-man tent. It was red. The water must have destroyed his tent bag because it opened up and it was in the water, unfolded and open. His backpack looked like it remained in one piece.”
Then the missing man’s body washed out from the base of the falls and swept into the reservoir.
“We left after that man died,” Williams said. “We couldn't be there any more. It was a horrific event.”
Not pointing fingers
Williams said he did not come across any rangers after the incident at Wapama Falls. He said he did speak to some tour guides who had radio contact with rangers.
“The tour guides were looking for the body to alert the rangers where it was once they got out on the reservoir,” Williams said. “The rangers went out on a boat.”
Williams emphasized he does not blame the National Park Service or anyone else for what happened. Rangers he and his mother saw over the course of five days warned them about high waters. They saw multiple signs warning them about conditions at Wapama Falls and other locations.
“Every day we talked to rangers about what we doing. Saturday evening and Wednesday evening, they advised us to avoid waterfall crossings and creek crossings,” he said.
Specifically, they were advised against trying to cross bridges at Wapama Falls and Falls Creek up by Lake Vernon, Williams said.
“They said they couldn’t tell us not to,” Williams said. “But they strongly suggested we do not try to cross any of the bridges.”
Williams said Wapama Falls, like other waterways and waterfalls in this snowmelt season in Yosemite, should be respected for its power and unpredictability.
“It’s a force of nature,” Williams said. “Man tests nature and sometimes nature wins. People should think twice when they come across a situation like that. If the Park Service warns or advises you to not do something that it is most likely in your best interest not to.”
People should have the right to go where they want when entering our national parks, Williams said.
“We pay taxes for the ability to enjoy such things as the wilderness,” he said. “I just urge people to take a second moment to rethink things, Is it worth it? These conditions are much stronger than most are used to and these tragedies that occur should be a lesson to us all.”
Williams, a freelance commercial photographer in Greensboro, North Carolina, and his mother, Rebecca Dresser, of Danbury, N.C., returned home this week.
Rangers investigating Schlittner’s death have interviewed the missing man’s friends but have yet to interview any witnesses, Jamie Richards with Yosemite National Park public affairs said Thursday in a phone interview.
Richards said she could not release or confirm Schlittner’s name. She confirmed that Schlittner was in a party of four last week at Wapama Falls.
“Three members of his party got through fine,” Richards said. “He was behind them. To our knowledge there are no witnesses to what happened on that bridge.
“We’re still trying to get answers to what happened,” Richards said. “There was water on the bridge. How much we’re not sure. That is part of our ongoing investigation.”
Richards said rangers in Yosemite National Park have been warning of high waters on all trails close to water and they will continue to warn people of potential dangers that exist in the park.
Schlittner’s family planned to have his cremated remains scattered at sea today off the coast of Orange County, according to the Certificate of Death reviewed by The Union Democrat at the Tuolumne County Recorder’s Office in Sonora.
The time of Schlittner’s death is listed as 12:50 p.m. June 22 at Wapama Falls in an accident. The certificate states the causes of his death as freshwater drowning and head trauma. It also states: “Victim fell from a height into a reservoir.”
The death certificate was signed June 27 by Jeff R. Wilson, Deputy Coroner, Tuolumne County. Terzich & Wilson Funeral Home of Sonora handled Schlittner’s remains. Members of Schlittner’s family could not be reached today.