By Mark Esper
Scott Snell of Austin, Texas spent some time alone up at the South Mineral Creek Falls on Monday, July 7.
He’d come back there for the first time in exactly 50 years.
Snell, 56, who operates a computer business, isn’t even sure himself why he felt the need to return to the spot that changed his life so dramatically a half century ago.
He contacted the Standard last fall asking for information on a drowning that had occurred at the falls on July 7, 1964. The victim was his father, Hampton Kent Snell Jr., 34.
“This had been on my mind for quite some time,” Snell said. “With the 50th anniversary approaching I think it helped me talk about it.”
Snell said even 50 years later at least some of the events of that day are quite clear in his mind.
“When tragedy strikes it’s almost always unexpected,” Snell said. “This is that sort of thing.”
He said his family from Houston had taken the train to Silverton in 1963 and his dad “fell in love with the place” and insisted they come back on a camping trip the next year.
They found themselves at the South Mineral Creek Campground.
“We were having a great time. It was a beautiful day,” Snell said. “The spring (seasaon) was later then, so the runoff was really, really high — higher than now. The waterfall was just a thundering cataract.”
He recalls there was a footbridge leading to the other side of the creek in those days and he and his family crossed over.
“It’s striking how fast something can happen. I was walking near the edge kind of cautiously and my brother made some kind of noise or did something playful and I reacted and I slipped. And I fell.”
Snell recalls “hanging in the current under a rock.” His mom grabbed him but she also slipped. Both struggled in the rapids.
“I remember I was hanging onto her foot at one point.”
His dad then jumped into the water to help. But the current was too strong.
“He realized ‘we’re going over the falls!’ And we did. All three of us.”
As best Snell can figure, he and his mom landed feet first in the pool below “and that’s probably how we survived.”
But his dad emerged with a severe head injury.
“He was probably mortally wounded. He was semi-conscious and tried to pull himself out of the water, but he wasn’t lucid.”
According to the Silverton Standard report of July 10, 1964, Mrs. Snell reported her husband asked if the boy was safe, and she said she noticed a large bump on her husband’s forehead. He then disappeared into the water.
“Even if he had managed to pull himself out there’s a great chance he would have died,” Snell believes. “He was gravely wounded,” including a punctured lung.
“I got banged up pretty good, too,” Snell said. “I blacked out briefly. The impact damaged my left ear. To this day I am practically deaf in this ear.”
He said his mom came through “banged up but not injured seriously in any way.”
Looking back at it now, he can see how the event affected him.
“There I was just about to turn 6. Everything in my life that has followed is a result of what happened that day. It changed everything. Our life was completely upended.”
And Snell acknowledges dealing with the feeling that he was responsible for it all.
Snell said “it’s always been my intention to come back here. When I was in my 20s I came through this way. I approached the site but I didn’t go there.”
He said it’s been on his mind a lot more over the last year.
“I don’t really understand why I’m here. It just feels like I have to be, though.”
Snell said his visit Monday, exactly 50 years after the tragedy, brought back some very sharp memories.
“Coming back sort of refreshed my memory of certain things. I can recall looking up at my brother, just horror struck, just panic stricken.
“I remember being immersed in the water and just letting go and then seeing green and white, green and white, green and white as we tumbled down.”
Snell says he’s been blogging about the incident recently.
“What makes my story so unique is that it’s weird. How often do people get swept over waterfalls? You couldn’t make this stuff up. You’ve got to be kidding. But that’s what happened. And it changed everything.”