Father of girl who drowned in Esopus Creek speaks out

For the first time since Sept. 5, when a family outing on the Esopus Creek turned tragic, Jeffrey Engler is speaking publicly about the accident that claimed his daughter's life.

Fourteen-year-old Jordyn Engler's death, which occurred at the peak of tourist season on Labor Day weekend, shocked communities around the Catskills. The Connecticut teenager drowned during a tubing excursion near a well-known river hazard in the Ulster County town of Shandaken that local tubing companies are known to avoid.

Police say that her death was an accident, and that the investigation into the circumstances surrounding it are closed.

Initially, Jeffrey Engler asked for privacy after his daughter’s death. But in a recent interview with the Watershed Post, Engler described his experience of the day in an attempt to correct what he called errors in police and media accounts of the incident.

Above: Jordyn Engler in an Instagram photo. 

For our Sept. 9 story about Jordyn Engler’s drowning, we relied on first responder and police accounts of what happened. Since the story’s publication, several witnesses, including Engler, have contacted us with new details, some of which conflict with the initial police account.

Captain Kevin Altieri of the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office, which investigated Jordyn Engler’s death, does not dispute the new details. The owners of F&S Adventures Tube Rental, the company that dropped the Englers off at the river, have not responded to repeated requests for comment.

Special trip to dangerous site

Engler said that not only did F&S Adventures Tube Rental drop him and his daughter off at the notoriously dangerous tubing site near the Shandaken cemetery, but that the tubing company made a special trip to ferry them there. This is contrary to the initial report from police.

After interviewing the staff of F&S Adventures, police believed that the tubing company’s bus driver dropped the Englers off in an impromptu fashion while driving a load of other tubers to a drop point further upstream.

According to Jeffrey Engler, this account is false. F&S agreed to make a special, private trip to drop the Englers off at the site, he said.

“There was nobody else on the bus,” Engler said. “Just the driver, myself and my daughter. They went to where I told them to go to. My daughter wanted to see the place that I would go when I was a kid.”

Above: An F&S Adventures Tube Rental bus on Sept. 6. Photo by Julia Reischel. 

Engler had gone tubing from the site in the past, before it became dangerous, and wanted to see it again, he said.

F&S staff did warn the Englers that the Shandaken cemetery site was a dangerous place to enter the river, Engler said.

“They said ‘We don’t do that anymore; it’s dangerous there,’” Engler said. “And I said, ‘Let me go and make that determination myself.’”

“I talked them into it,” he said. “That part I will not dispute. In the end, he shouldn’t have let me go there.”

Engler said that he told the F&S bus driver that he planned to take photos and look around.

If he and his daughter decided it was too dangerous, then they would walk the three miles along Route 28 back to Phoenicia carrying their inner tubes, he said.

“We never went back”

When the bus got to the Shandaken cemetery access point, the parking lot was full of cars, Engler said. (The site is a popular location for kayaking.)

“You wouldn’t know going there that there would be any additional dangers,” Engler said.

To park, Engler said that he switched places with the bus driver and backed the bus into the parking lot himself.

“I had to turn the bus around in he parking lot because the driver couldn’t,” Engler said.

Then Engler and his daughter got out of the bus and carried their inner tubes down the dirt path to the water, Engler said.

The bus driver drove away, Engler said. As far as he knows, he said, the bus didn’t return.

Police initially believed that the driver of the bus returned to the site to check on the Englers, and that Jeffrey Engler waved him on, indicating that he and his daughter would launch their tubes from the unauthorized site.

Engler said that never happened.

“We never went back [up the path],” he said.

This detail is backed up by another witness, a kayaker who was in the parking lot of the Shandaken cemetery access site when the F&S tubing bus pulled up that day.

The witness saw the Englers get off an otherwise-empty bus, saw Jeffrey Engler switch places with the bus driver, did not see the bus return to check on the Englers and did not see the Englers come back up the path.

Harry Jameson, the owner of Town Tinker Tube Rental, another tubing company that also operates on the Esopus, also believes that it is unlikely that F&S was driving by the Shandaken site with a bus full of tubers.

No tubing company currently drops tubers upstream of the Shandaken cemetery site, he said, although they have in the past. Instead, both companies now use a launch point further downstream.

“We have not used that cemetery access since 2005 when it became dangerous and we shortened our course on the river to a location about a three-quarters of a mile below that [downstream, closer to Phoenicia],” Jameson said. “Traditionally, F&S basically parallels my operation.”

"My daughter and I weren't tubing"

At the water’s edge, Jeffrey Engler and his daughter didn’t try to go tubing, Engler said. Instead, they waded into the stream to check the conditions. Both of them were wearing life jackets, and Jeffrey Engler was carrying both inner tubes, he said.

“I told my daughter let me go in first, because the water is going to be ice cold,” Engler said. “I stepped in. It was great. She stepped in. We took out the camera, we took a selfie.”

Then they saw the strainer, a dangerous pile of logs and debris, downstream, he said.

Above: The strainer on the Esopus Creek where 14-year-old Jordyn Engler drowned on Saturday, Sept. 5. Two swiftwater rescue boats, both of which can be seen in this photo, were lost during attempts to recover her body. Photo by Julia Reischel.

“And we saw that area where the strainer was, and we decided, ‘We’re not going; we’re going to walk back,’” Engler said. “My daughter was completely OK with that.”

The whole time, Engler said, he was carrying their inner tubes.

“We never got into a tube,” he said. “We were in a shallow area, and I had both tubes in my hand. We were nowhere near the strainer. My daughter and I weren’t tubing.”

Instead, he said, as they walked back to shore through the shin-deep water, Jordyn slipped on some rocks.

Immense pressure

As soon as she slipped, Jordyn Engler was swept downstream by the powerful current into the strainer, Engler said.

“She immediately started floating, and she couldn’t get a footing,” he said. “I immediately jumped in afterwards."

At the strainer, Jordyn was sucked underwater and pinned against a large log. 

"She just got sucked in immediately," Engler said. "She had her hand in the air—that was the only part of her body that was visible. She was telling me where she was.”

Engler said that he grabbed Jordyn and tried unsuccessfully to lift her clear of the log. The pressure from the water was immense, he said.

Above: Rescuers search for Jordyn Engler in the high water of the Esopus Creek on Saturday, Sept. 5. The video was shot by a first responder at the scene and shared with the Watershed Post.

The life jackets both of them were wearing made things worse, he said.

“They created an additional pressure point for all the water going through there,” he said. “I tried and tried and tried, and I eventually lost hold of her.”

Then Engler was swept away, he said. He managed to grab onto the branch of a small tree and drag himself along the strainer against the current back to his daughter.

“The first time I was swept away, I knew she was gone,” he said. “My attitude was, ‘I’m going to get her out and I’m going to revive her.’”

Dragging himself back to the log Jordyn was pressed against, Engler was able to get his arms around her, he said. He had removed his life jacket—now he took hers off as well in an attempt to free her. (The police initially said that Jordyn’s life jacket strap had snapped on its own.)

Still, Engler couldn’t lift Jordyn out of the water, he said.

“There was no way I was getting her out,” he said. “She was limp at that point.”

The whole time, Engler said, he was screaming.

“I was screaming the whole time,” he said. “Screaming for help. There were eventually some people. These people said, ‘Where is she?’ I said, ‘You don’t understand. I have her, I have her.'”

Soon after that, Engler said, he passed out from exhaustion, floated down the stream and woke up on the opposite bank. Then he walked and crawled upstream along the bank, in shock and with no voice left, until he eventually attracted the attention of some bystanders.

"No real warning there"

Accounts of what happened once police and first responders arrived on the scene are accurate, Engler said. He added that he is extremely grateful to the emergency workers who tried to save his daughter.

“I want to thank them for what they’ve done,” he said. “I cannot stress enough how well they did. I cannot stress enough how much I appreciate the first responders who put their lives on the line.”

Engler said that he plans to campaign to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again. 

Advocates have been asking elected officials to create legislation to make it easier and less litigious to remove debris and strainers from Catskills streams. Engler said that he may become involved in that effort.

“There is no real warning there,” Engler said. “It’s not going to bring my daughter back, but I need that area cleaned up. I cannot undo what has happened, but I need to honor my daughter.”

Above: Signs at the path that leads to the Esopus Creek at the Shandaken Cemetery do not warn that tubing or boating in this location is dangerous. Photo by Julia Reischel on Sept. 6. 

Weeks after Jordyn Engler’s death, there is no sign at the Shandaken cemetery river access point warning that a dangerous strainer lurks downstream.

But at the entrance to the dirt path that leads down to the water, there is now a large white cross bearing Jordyn Engler’s name.

Left: A cross remembering Jordyn Engler at the Shandaken Cemetery access point. Photo by Julia Reischel.

“My biggest mistake was asking to be dropped off where we should not have been dropped off,” Engler said. “I have to live with that the rest of my life.”

Previous coverage:

Teen drowned while tubing after bus dropped her near notorious hazard, Sept. 9, 2015

14-year-old drowns in Esopus Creek, police say, Sept. 5, 2015

Correction: According to Jeff Engler, the driver of the bus could not, rather than would not, turn the bus around in the Shandaken tubing site parking lot. We've edited Engler's quote accordingly.