Accident Database

Report ID# 1050

  • Pinned in Boat Against Strainer
  • Near Drowning
  • Other

Accident Description

This accident report is entirely from my vantage point (I wasn't in the best position to see or report all that occurred so hopefully others present will add in) Our group a combination of paddlers from the Mason Dixon Canoe Club and the Monocacy Canoe Club had joined together to run a class 1-2 stretch of the Potomac near Harpers Ferry referred to as the Needles. We had planned to guide one novice paddler down along with stopping for some easy wave surfing and hole playing and then we were going to paddle past our normal takeout to view an outstanding heron rookery.

The day was predicted to be near 80 degrees with some wind and moderate amount of sunshine. Water temps still made a dry top or semi dry feel good. We put in at the Bakerton put in on the West Virginia side. We noticed what appeared to be a class or recreation club at the put in. The participants with that group were in farmer johns and lifejackets, helmets and spray skirts. They did not have spray tops, drytops or fleece. They appeared to be practicing bow rescues. We didn't speak with them as they were putting in a bit downstream on the long bank there. It turns out they were from John Hopkins University.

Our group split into two groups to paddle over the broken down area called Dam 34. One section of our group made a flotilla to support our novice - the other part of our group went off for some warm up surfs....Many of those paddlers continued on downstream to what we call the lunch rock - eventually they went onto to the take out to get vehicles as they assumed there must have been some kind of a problem (it is a short run and getting vehicles was a logical manuever which helped out later in the day) The rest of our group which included experienced paddlers Barb Brown, Ron Ray, Jim Norton, Dan E. and myself along with Sylvia and Tara (our newer paddlers) regrouped. Tara was feeling a bit nervous - so we rallied around her encouraging her....(she also felt badly because she was "taking up our time" - in fact it was Tara's nervousness that caused our group to be present when the accident occurred!)

Just as we began leading Tara across the ferry I noticed a boat and swimmer from the John Hopkins group. We got Tara too an eddy and I looked around and saw that they were at least 2 more paddlers in the water upstream of a log. I also noted 3 paddlers around a log which was protruding about 8 - 10 feet in the water from a rock island. One paddler was sitting on the log - there was nothing particularly alarming and the paddlers didn't seem to be signaling - but it just struck me as odd so I told Ron Ray that I was heading upstream to investigate.

Barb Brown was further upstream closer to the incident - she learned quickly that there was a paddler in their boat under the log. At this point I heard a whistle which confirmed to me that something was wrong but I was still about 75 yards downstream attaining up a shallow rocky stretch of flowing water. I started blowing my whistle. I heard Barb scream to hurry - so I started blowing my whistle in 3's and glanced behind me to see that Jim and Ron were following me. I decided to ditch my boat and wade and scramble upstream - as soon as I was out of my boat - and still probably 40 yards away I heard someone yell for a knife. I relayed the message to Ron who I thought was carrying one. At this point it looked to me like someone was hung up on the downstream side of the log by there lifejacket - In fact what had happened from what I can understand is that the victim - Dawn- had washed up on the log in her kayak - her head was evidently above water for a bit of time as she screamed for some point she and her boat slipped under the log - Barb Brown reported only seeing a tiny portion of the boat when she arrived on the scene)....

The JH group used incredible strength and pulled Dawn from her this point Dawn's sprayskirt caught in the root ball. When the JH trip leader arrived on the scene from upstream he cut her sprayskirt free with a knife. By this time it was clear to me that there was a terrible emergency so I had signaled to some fishermen and cyclists on the shore to call 911. They later confirmed by hand signals that the call was place.

When Dawn's body came free the group immediately dragged her to her hips onto the rock -Barb Brown stripped off Dawn's helmet and PFD and a lifeguard who was paddling with the JH group began CPR. When I arrived on the rock I yelled at everyone to stop CPR for a moment and drag her further up on the rock where it was flatter. When Jim and Ron arrived the manpower was there to accomplish this. I am not sure how many cycles of CPR had been done to that point. After Dawn was up on a flatter spot about another 3 or 4 cycles were performed and Dawn had a pulse. Rescue breathing was continued for about another 60 - 90 seconds and then Dawn began to breath shallowly on her own. A couple guys turned Dawn on her side incase she vomited but she didn't. Barb reported later that breaths went easily - so it appears Dawn didn't take in any water.

We hadn't seen any rescue vehicles yet - so we began to discuss if the 911 call had actually gone through. It was determined that I was the best paddler best suited for making the ferry over to I took off to shore to confirm that the call had worked. This is a very difficult area for communication and jurisdiction. Maryland owns the river - the DNR responds to river emergency - there are two National Parks C&O canal National Park (in MD) Harpers Ferry National Park in West at least 3 potential responding rescue squads from 2 differant MD counties and 1 West VA county..... When I arrived at the West VA shore a fishermen placed another cell phone call with the updated info that I had (CPR had been administered - victim currently breathing but very shallowly - unconscious victim...shock and hypothermia quite possible - no obvious bleeding or broken bones.... Zodiac and/or helicopter needed).... I stayed on the West VA shore for a while.

Brenda who is also a paddler was biking along the west va shore - when we learned MD was responding she took off down to Harpers Ferry on her bike to see if she could at least get a ranger vehicle up to the west va side with maybe some blankets and stuff that could be ferried out to the victim.... I started back to the island and was able to confirm that Dawn was still breathing - I think I relayed that a helicopter was coming but I'm not sure what I said because at that time I saw rescue vehciles arriving on teh MD side - so I paddled over there and ran up the towpath to give them a report....they had to transmit the info through a dispatcher to the MD State police helicopter which had arrived on the scene by then.

Somebody who was out on the rocks with Dawn will have to add in about the airlift and the Zodiac - but basically the Zodiac crew came down and had a bit a trouble with the log but managed to get around it. They packaged Dawn on a backboard and clipped her into the rescue basket which hoisted her up and away.....She was transported to Washington County hospital where we heard she was breathing and I think the DNR people said she was reported to be regaining consciousness but I'm not sure...

It was quite a mission collecting boats and equipment as the draft from the helicopter blew them all over the river. (If you ever know a helicopter is coming try to secure your boats and gear) I also forgot to mention that Jim and Ron did a great job of getting both upstream swimmers out of the water. The Zodiac raft took most of the JH crew downstream where they were reunited with their vehicle and warm clothes... I don't know if all the kayaks and paddles were retrieved from the JH group but all the paddles were marked with JH - maybe the boats were too?

One thing I would have liked to have seen happen is to have had an "incident commander" from our kayak club - the jobs did all get done but I'm not sure that we covered our bases as best we could. I would have liked to have know the strength of the group for first aid etc before I left the rock but I didn't think to ask...I also would have liked to know that the upstream swimmers were going to be attended too...that all happened.....but still I felt awkward leaving the rock to go over to check on the 911 call knowing that I knew CPR and was one of the most experienced paddlers present (not that I am all that experienced).... The knife was a Godsend as was 4 people with strong CPR knowlege...

Sheila ChapelleSunday April 16 2006 Potomac Rescue

I'm Barbara Brown. I have been paddling since the 1950's when I joined Annavieve Abram's mariner troop and the Canoe Cruisers Association. Paddling stuck - and has been a lifetime pleasure. Currently I seldom paddle above class 3. However, in my youth I was more aggressive. In fact, I was on the second pioneer Gauley trip in 1969 when the rapids were named. Lost Paddle was named after my paddle and my swim. I raised three children in paddling - my two girls, Amy and Becky competed in Slalom and were on the Junior Team. My son, Jonathan, jumped Great Falls regularly when he taught paddling at the Valley Mill Camp. Personally I have been involved in multiple bad swims. The worst was on the Cranberry in 1970 under the same rock that claimed Sally Naas.I am CPR and Red Cross first aid certified through courses offered by the National Park Service C&O Canal Bike patrol in 2005/2006. I have had, however, never been directly involved in a death or near death on the river until Sat. April 15.

The day began innocuously. I met Ron Ray at Cindy Dees where we connected with a Mason Dixon Canoe Club's scheduled Class 2 trip on the Potomac at Harpers Ferry - the Needles. Our group was large - with perhaps 20 boats and we had one novice who was just trying whitewater. The weather was May like - eighties, clear blue sky. The water had warmed to just below swimming temperature - perhaps 55 to 60 degrees. The level was medium low. To run the broken dam, the group split - the more adventuresome paddled across the river to the Maryland side chutes, out of sight. The rest planned to paddle the safest and least difficult route on the West Virginia side, along the wall, to assist the newbie. She managed the first riffles and eddied out shakily, stopping to obtain much advice and encouragement. I dropped down the next class 2 riffle, planning to direct the best line to the group if needed. About 15 or 20 minutes passed as I did small ferries to entertain myself. The group was still in the eddy near the wall, pretty much out of sight. An empty boat floated by being rescued by a young man. I asked him if he had the paddle and looked upstream for it. About 100 yards upsteam, the swimmer was in the middle of a rapid formed by a 50 foot break in the dam, standing on a rock. She seemed to be rubbing her arm, perhaps injured. Although it was not an obvious emergency, I paddled upstream still alert to the possibility that a paddle might appear. Three boats paddled by and landed on the rocky island to my left as I continued my attainment, well downsteam of the rapid, about 70 yards. One girl was getting out. I asked her if "the swimmer was injured." She said, "no" but someone was "behind the log". I looked - and saw- upsteam, along the river right side of the break was a large log, two feet in diameter, wedged 15 feet into the river with an additional 15 feet across the shore. On the river side was the remnants of a root ball. The log arched about one foot above the river near the center so that you could see under it. Near the rootball. I could see about two feet of the bow of a boat. I asked the girl, "Are you sure someone is in the boat?" She said, "yes." "Alarm bells" went off in my head. I shouted to the three to "run." They listened; they obeyed. I kept shouting to "run, run." The slowest turned and said, "I am running." I replied, "Run faster." It was more efficient for me to paddle up as far as possible. About 50 feet downsteam of the log, I beached the boat, got out and grabbed my throw rope from behind the seat and hurried behind the three. When I arrived at the log, the three were waist deep downstream of the log. A fourth member of their group was straddling the log. Heroically, the paddler had been extricated from the kayak. The back of the head was toward me. They were shouting that she was "stuck." Thinking we needed more muscle, I began screaming for other members of my group, and unraveled the throw bag, asking if the rope would help. Someone was blowing a whistle. Suddenly the paddler was freed. Her head fell back. Her face was an awful shade and blue and her lips were purple. They worked as a team to get her to shore at my feet; Seated, I wasn't strong enough to pull her up the rock face out of the water. Jim Norton, from my group appeared. I slid aside, he grabbed both shoulders of her life jacket and pulled her four feet out of the water. We worked together. Sherry, one of the members of their group, announced she worked as a summer life guard, and started checking her pulse. I removed her helmet, which allowed access to the carotid pulse. There was no pulse and no breathing ...and that terrible color. We removed her lifejacket and unzipped the top of the farmer john wetsuit. Sherry began CPR, doing both the breathing and compressions. As doing both by one person was awkward and obviously inefficient, I leaned over and did breathing. I could feel that air was going in. Sherry straddled her, counting the compressions. A voice behind us offered directions and suggestions. Expecting vomit, we turned her on her side - but it was not necessary and we turned her back on her back and pulled her up further. With CPR alone, her color started to improve ... After only about 5 rescue breaths, the victim "gasped" and started breathing shallowly and very weakly on her own. We were afraid she would stop and continued breaths - her breathing became stronger and somehow, we knew it would not stop. Checking, we had a pulse. It had a count. It wasn't over. We called her name, Dawn, over and over telling her it was going to be ok. She was cold to the touch - I had a paddling top in my dry bag and we put it over her. You could see visible warming. Over the 15 minute period, her breathing came in strong "gasps." She became agitated, throwing her arms around and moaning. We kept talking to her hoping her eyes were open and she would say something back but it never happened. She remained unconscious. We knew we needed more help. Taking time to look, I noticed her spray skirt was in tatters. It was the spray skirt, being snagged, that prevented the rescuers from pulling her under the log. The leader of their trip, Jason, had a knife and had hacked the spray skirt until it was freed. She also had abrasions along her neck and I was concerned she might have a neck injury but it was not the case. On shore, the fisherman had dialed 911. Shiela Chappelle of our group, who had been behind us with CPR directives, got back in her boat and paddled over to the West Virginia side to make sure the 911 call had been made accurately. An emergency vehicle appeared on the Maryland side - up the canal - over a third of a mile away. Oh No! They came to the wrong side!" But before we had time to be distressed, another appeared on the West Virginia side, much closer. Would we have to move Dawn across 300 yards of river to the ambulance? Could we? Jason, leader of the Hopkins group, signaled by rotating a paddle that we needed a helicopter. Sheila paddled from side to side trying to report Dawn's condition accurately. A motorized "jon" boat with EMTs appeared. They almost spilled by trying to dock the boat upstream of the log. All available arms held ropes to make sure they could secure the boat. We used my throw rope on the bow- making sure the boat would not jerk into Dawn whose feet were at the water's edge. We aided the EMTs in getting Dawn strapped onto a backboard. Simultaneously, the Maryland State Police helicopter appeared. They lowered a yellow guide line, then a rescue basket. They carefully placed the backboarded Dawn into the netted basket and hauled her into the helicopter which flew her to Washington County Hospital in Hagerstown. Shelly, very shaken, was offered a ride to shore by the jon boat. We gave her Dawn's helmet and lifejacket. Next a Zodiac appeared and told all to get in. I refused because I needed to get my kayak. Only four people were left on the island, Jason, Jim, Ron and me. We looked downriver - the helicopter had scattered most of the boats and paddles, including mine, into the river. Don of our group was patiently herding three empty boats 150 yards downsteam - with a strong breeze. An hour later we had straightened out our belongings. We learned that Ron Ray and Jim Norton, both graduates of the Canoe Cruisers Associations' Swiftwater rescue class, had remembered the girl in the river and roped her to shore. The crucial question was: How long had Dawn been in the water? What had happened. Here is the story as I know it. The group was a Johns Hopkins University Outing Club. Out of the ten boaters, three were instructors and two were instructors in training. The instructors were well trained with wilderness first aid and paddling experience. Dawn Ruben was the only non student in the group. In her late thirties, she is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at Hopkins on a fellowship. She had never been in a boat before. After the first girl spilled, all the rest of the "students" were herded into an eddy to river right of the chute while the instructors proceeded with the rescue. One instructor chased the original swimmer's boat. Dawn, being new, didn't hold the eddy and slipped out and floated into the log. Three boats followed her down, Dawn, caught upstream of the log, was calling for help and holding on to both the log and one of the other boats. The boat slipped out of her grasp and three boats managed to paddle safely around the log, leaving Dawn trapped in her boat. This is where I met the three boaters. I feel Dawn had been underwater at least five minutes. Dawn was in a coma and in critical care 15 hours. She woke without residual physical damage except that she cannot remember the accident. On Wednesday, she made a joyous call to me. She has a lovely voice. Her recovery is nothing less than a miracle. Woman Rescued After Kayak Accident The Herald-Mail online (4-16-06) 4-15-06 HARPERS FERRY, W.VA.A woman was airlifted to Washington Co., MD Hospital on Sat. (4-15) after the kayak she was piloting on the Potomac River near Harpers Ferry became entangled in tree limbs, pulling her underwater, according to a fire and rescue official who responded to the midafternoon rescue effort. The woman, whose name was not released, was listed as a Priority One trauma patient at the time she was airlifted to the hospital, Potomac Valley Assistant Fire Chief Eric Gray said. Gray said the woman was one of about 8 to 10 University of Maryland medical students who was taking kayaking lessons on the river. He said the kayak the woman was riding in became entangled and capsized in the swift water after tree limbs perforated the waterproof spray skirt that attaches to the boat's cockpit. Fire and rescue depts. from numerous jurisdictions in Washington and Frederick counties, as well as officers with Maryland State Police, the Dept. of Natural Resources and Jefferson County, W.Va. responded to the accident, which occurred about 12:50 p.m. about 100 yards below Dam No. 3 north of Harpers Ferry, Gray said. The woman was freed from the boat by her fellow kayakers and had been carried to a rock in the river prior to the arrival of rescue units, Gray said. "The other kayakers actually freed her and started CPR," Gray said. Several of those kayakers later were treated for hypothermia as a result of their efforts to free the woman, National Park Service park ranger Eric Sheetz said.

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