Generally emerald green and ankle high in good weather, the stream that day "reached up to your waist," says Bob Baggs, 59, a friend of Shannon's family's who was on the hike. "Up above the falls it was so muddy you couldn't see bottom or anyone's foot. And down in the pool where the water fell, it was very rough and churning and a kind of brown color."
Shannon stood a few feet from the flume and removed his hat, shirt and sandals. As he was preparing to give the slide a trial run, one of the members of the group said, "Shannon, this water's running too heavy. I'm not going in."
It was Mike Law, 60, a friend and neighbor of the Smiths' who was making his first visit to Slippery Slide. "I just didn't trust the look of the stream," says Law, an experienced waterman. "Shannon was still just a kid, and I knew it wouldn't do me a bit of good to say, 'Hey, let's don't do this.' He's still bulletproof, right? And you don't get over being bulletproof until you're at least 35."
The height of the falls varies according to the volume of water in the pool below, and on this day the height was only about 10 feet, shorter than usual by a third. The water also was cascading with such force that it formed a vortex in the pool. To Law that vortex resembled a huge toilet bowl sucking everything down to a depth that couldn't be judged accurately from the rocks above.
Shannon had experienced only great times at the slide, and he probably knew little or nothing about its savage history. One reason Waipahee usually appears innocuous is its size: The pool at the bottom of the waterfall is only about 12 feet wide and 25 feet long. Its depth, though, is another matter. In rainy conditions, such as those occurring on Shannon's Easter expedition, the pool can run as deep as 30 feet, giving rise to a local legend that the hole is bottomless. In fact a dense bed of silt rests on the floor. Centuries of rapid water have cut a terraced cave at the foot of the cliff face, and there the whirling currents become especially powerful during times of flooding. In the 35 years before Shannon's excursion, nine people had drowned at Slippery Slide, three of them teenagers killed on one day in 1971. No one in Shannon's lifetime had been lost at the site, however, and close calls rumored to have occurred there did not involve 20-year-old athletes with his prodigious swimming abilities.
Shannon, perhaps overeager to impress his coach and to provide another uncommon experience for his friends, ignored Law's admonition and went down the slide headfirst. The velocity of his dive carried his 200-pound body past the turbulence. He climbed back up the rocks to the ecstatic shouts of Cody vonAppen, Thea and Fred's six-year-old son. "Take me down the slide now, take me down the slide," the boy was saying.
"When Shannon got out, I heard him say, 'It's moving,' or something like that," says Shinnick. "Cody was wanting to go down the slide by himself, but Shannon said, 'No, let me go down with you.' "
Shannon took the 60-pound boy in his arms and sat in the rushing water at the mouth of the flume. From the rocks nearby, Thea lifted a camera and snapped a picture just as Shannon and Cody began their downward slide. They entered the pool feetfirst, falling directly into the vortex, and several long seconds passed before they surfaced, heads barely visible in the frothy swirls. "Something's wrong," Thea muttered.
She could see Cody gasping for breath and Shannon desperately fighting to hold him up. They were caught in the vortex. The water pushed them against the cliff face, then brought them back around again.
Frantic now, Thea removed a few articles of clothing and went down the slide. "When I hit the water and didn't come up to the surface right away, I thought, Oh, my god," she says. "I knew it wasn't right, and I knew Cody wouldn't be strong enough to survive. I thought about death immediately—for him, anyway. I can remember the water, not feeling it so much as hearing it. I remember gasping at the cold. And I remember feeling a very strong downward pull. I grabbed at the rocks to try to hold on, but the rocks tore my nails off. I remember going under a few times and coming back up, and I didn't see Cody. Then he'd resurface, and Shannon would be holding him. The only thing Shannon said was, 'Come on, Cody, keep swimming. Keep your head up.' He never panicked."