On June 1, 1985, the Memphis paddlers had joined other boaters at Slice and Dice, a class III rapid with a popular ender spot. Dennis was waiting in his kayak in the top eddy of river-center prior to attempting an ender. A group of commercial paddle rafts entered the rapid; one of the lost control and caromed into the rock forming the eddy in which Dennis waited, discharging a patron in the process. This (very large) woman did everything right as she washed downstream through a small chute to the right of the rock, staying on her back and keeping her feet pointed downstream. However, as she passed over the lip of the drop, the paddle raft ran over her.
Dennis had been keeping an eye on the situation, and had dropped downstream to where he could get around the rock and closer to the river-right chute. As soon as the raft cleared the woman it became clear that she was in trouble—she was stuck at the lip of the drop, still on her back, feet downstream, struggling and with her face remaining submerged. The raft continued downstream, but Dennis shouted for help and then executed the series of hard jet ferries necessary to bring the bow of his boat to where she could grab it. She did so but it provided no aid, and she quickly released her grip.
Dennis then got a firm one-handed grip on the victim, discarded his paddle, and then bailed out of his boat. He was able then to plant his feet on the bottom and wrap his arms about the victim. Dennis is a large and strong man, but his first violent tug failed to bring the victim to the surface. As she passed over the drop, pressed down by the weight of the paddle raft above, the force of the current firmly anchored her PFD to the bottom.
The victim had now gone limp. Dennis was reluctant to cut her loose from her jacket (fearful of swimming with the huge unconscious woman and with only one life jacket between them), and so as a last resort gave a mighty upstream and upward heave. This popped her loose and launched the two of them into deeper water downstream. Although exhausted, he was able to prop the victim against the river-center rock (which had caused this whole problem to being with), and as her head emerged from the water after about two minutes of submersion she began to gasp and then to breathe. Guides and private paddlers quickly pulled her from the water, and she gradually recovered consciousness.
I think that this incident, the first of its kind of which I am aware, illustrates an unforeseen hazard associated with the PFD’s commonly used in commercial rafting. The numerous straps associated with these garments, often loose and ill-fitting, constitute an entrapment hazard, particularly on rivers (unlike the Ocoee) that contain obstructions such as downed trees or rebar.
Outtings Chairman Sierra Club