Accident Database

Report ID# 112642

  • Flush Drowning
  • Other
  • Does not Apply
  • Cold Water
  • One Boat Trip

Accident Description

From John McClanahan via FB: A lone kayaker, missed the "High Flow" line on Kanawha Falls, just below the mouth of West Virginia's Gauley River, and ended up trapped behind the curtain Sunday Evening. His boat flushed out, and was discovered floating in the pool below the Falls.

There was still one unattended vehicle in the parking area, so a search was mounted. Someone had pictures from earlier in the day, and "crowd-sourced" the boater's ID by posting online. A friend of mine recognized the guy from a race at the Racquette. They unsuccessfully tried to contact him, so decided he was most likely the missing boat.

Stephen Wright

A detailed description of the rescue effort at Kanawha last night:

Corey Lilly has written up an excellent shorter synopsis, but I figured that more details on the process of the rescue might be appreciated.

Early evening, I started seeing posts online about a boat seen floating below Kanawha Falls--for those who don't know the area, this is just downstream of the confluence of the New and Gauley rivers near Gauley Bridge, WV. A boat below Kanawha could have come from a swimmer on either of these rivers or from someone running the falls. It wasn't until 9:30 or 10:00PM that I got the message from Corey that there was also an unattended boater's van with TN plates in the Kanawha parking lot. His message was trying to identify the now seemingly missing paddler. It was quickly discovered that the rescue squad had been there, and that a few other local boaters were there. Corey, Paul Griffin, and I loaded up in Paul's truck and drove down to help-out.

We knew of a spot that would be hard to access or see for non-kayaking rescue personnel, but would be the most likely spot for an accident on the falls: the river right undercut wall and "cave" next to the landing of the High Flow (main drop) falls at Kanawha. This place would be very easy to miss by rescue personnel. In all honesty, we were not hopeful that a person who had been missing for several hours, likely in the water, would be able to be rescued.

We paddled out to the island with one other local boater next to the falls to begin looking--after coordinating phone contacts with two other friends/kayakers on shore. I was last to the island, and heard the other guys yelling that "He's here! He's alive!!!". He was somewhere behind the curtain of the falls, but we could clearly hear him yelling. We texted our contacts on shore to let them know that he was alive, and to let other kayakers, rafters, and the Rescue Squad know that we could use more help.

The normal situation of this falls is a high-volume waterfall of around 15' tall. The river right half of the outflow pushes into the undercut right wall, where a number of other kayakers have unintentionally gone and successfully swam out of. There is a cave or crack in the river right upstream corner, where there is usually a calmer spot of approximately 20 square feet. Many people who swim out of the wall wash back upstream into that cave, where they can be rescued by a raft, or other kayakers. This is the spot where we hoped to find the missing kayaker.

At the flows of last night (close to 9,000 cfs), there was water pouring over the entire lip all the way into the cave/crack. This completely blocked it from our line of sight, and it was from behind the curtain of water there that we could hear Sam yelling for help over the roar of the falls.

With just 4 of us out there, we first tried to establish contact with Sam by tethered wading out to a high point of the lip of the falls, where we hoped to be able to look down and see him and talk with him. After a few attempts, this proved to be impossible. We talked through rescue options: at these flows, it would be impossible to get a raft or motorized rescue inflatable to where he was--there was just WAY too much current flowing in the undercut wall. We desperately wanted to communicate with Sam to assesshis situation, and assure him that we would get him out. We were sure that he was freaking out.

The only options for evac would be either the 15-20 foot vertical extraction up the crack and onto the island, potentially sending down a kayak for him to paddle himself out (with the help of others), or waiting for the water to drop from the Gauley River upstream until a raft rescue would be possible.

Our best bet to communicate was determined to be a kayaker with a phone who could seal launch the calmest part of the falls into a very small "calmer" eddy next to the cave, or a kayaker running the smallest part of the falls which landed next to it. It was dark, and we only had two headlamps. Corey volunteered to run the drop, as he had run this line before at these flows. He would take his headlamp and phone, leaving me on shore with the other headlamp and phone to manage things from above. He was confident that he years ago. His goal was to make contact with Sam, without creating another victim. He successfully ran the falls into the eddy, but due the mist, wind, dark, swirly and powerful currents, and his eye contacts creating issues--he was prevented from seeing Sam, or communicating with him. He quickly peeled back out and paddled around the undercut wall to regroup.

At this point, we had been there for about an hour, and there were many more rescue vehicles and others on shore. Sam was still yelling and alive, but we had to assume that his situation was unstable due to hypothermia and the environment. We determined that the only option for rescue would be to lower a rope through the curtain of the falls into the crack, and pull him vertically out. We needed more than 4 of us to do this. Corey and I paddled back to shore to gather more volunteers, leaving Paul and another boater to maintain contact with Sam (which was limited to garbled yelling dueto the roar of the river).

On arrival, we found there were nearly 30 vehicles there with a ton of rescue personnel and a few motorized inflatables. Matt Jackson (our contact on shore), had also managed to mobilize the paddling community and many private rafters and kayakers had arrived. I told them all that we needed at least 10 bodies on the island to lift Sam up and out. Several rafters, kayakers, and a few rescue personnel came out quickly with us to attempt extraction. This was around midnight.

Once we established our pulling zone and got organized, I set up our largest diameter spectra throwrope with a locking carabiner to lower through the falls into the crack for Sam. I attached my headlamp to the carabiner in the hopes that he'd see it. Had he not been able to see or grab the rope, we likely would have had to lower a rescuer on the rope--this would have added another level of complication and danger. Fortunately, Sam grabbed the rope almost immediately. We couldn't talk to him over the roar of the river, so it took a number of tries pulling before he understood that we wanted to him clip in to the rope with his Rescue PFD. On the 4th or 5th try of us pulling on the rope, he was clipped in and being lifted.

As our group pulled on the rope over the edge of rock, we regularly heard yells from him, which we interpreted to mean that he was stuck on the rock wall. After a few stop-and-goes, I saw one arm and the top of his head come up through the curtain of falls in the corner of the crack. Slowly, he managed to climb, wiggle, and be pulled him up and over the lip! WHAT A RELIEF!!!!

After cheering, hugging, and doing our best to quickly warm him up a little, a few rescuers helped him walk down to the powered rescue boat and he was taken back to shore and to an ambulance. Even from the island we could hear the roar of the crowd that had assembled on shore cheering for his safe return. By this time is was around 1:00 AM. I can no longer remember the names and faces of all the incredible people who came out to the island andlifted him to safety in the dark, but you are all heroes.

A few take-aways (meaning no criticism or disrespect to Sam--I've seen these things many times before now):

-Kanawha falls High Flow line is not a beginner waterfall. Anyone who runs this should know that they are risking going under the right wall and they need to have safety set up to deal with that. Unless the levels are butt low, a person who breaks a paddle, drops a paddle, misses a few rolls, or blows a skirt will likely go under the wall. I've run far harder whitewater and bigger drops all over the world, and I won't mess around playing around with this drop. I take the consequences seriously every time I run it.

-As kayakers, we live or die as a group. In many situations, self-rescue is impossible. Had this not been a solo paddler, he would have likely been able to have been rescued almost immediately after the incident. As kayakers, we need to stop glorifying solo boating--even those who do it should stop talking about it.

-There are many places we go that Professional Rescue Personnel will not know how to access or be able to operate safely. These people are heroes, and want to help, but they simply don't have the experience with whitewater of most kayakers or rafters. We need to be ready to help out or lead in whitewater rescues. We need to remember that a missing boater (even one who's been missing in the water for 7 or more hours) may still be alive and waiting for rescue. Our best safety standards should involve local paddling experts and professional rescuers working together.

-The water at Kanawha falls comes from the New and Gauley. During Gauley release days, the water at Kanawha will rise dramatically late afternoon/early evening every day. The water yesterday likely rose from 6,500 cfs to 9,000 cfs as Sam was paddling.

Thanks to all who helped with this rescue. We're all grateful that Sam is safe and OK.

Ours is a great community of helpful people. We live or die together in the power and beauty of the river. Take a SWR class if you haven't already. You could save my life someday. Keep each other safe, and I hope to see you all on the river :). Sorry if there are spelling or grammar errors, we're all pretty wiped out today.

Matthew Jackson on FB

My recollection of what happened.

Last night, somebody put an emergency call out on a boat found at Kanawha Falls, which got shared widely on Facebook and lead to a positive ID on the missing boater. It started for me when I got back to my campsite, where Albie was being called by Sam's family. They urgently needed him to get to Kanawha Falls asap to secure the vehicle and meet the police on scene.

I drove us out there. On the way out, we were contacted by Corey and Stephen who were a few minutes behind us geared up and ready to do a follow-up search. We arrived at Kanawha and met with Officer Hilton of DNR. Immediately we secured permission for a search crew to go out and set up a liaison, using him as the main point of contact and effectively incident commander. DNR was extremely supportive, and agreed to let kayak search efforts go unhindered and offer whatever support they could.

Corey, Stephen, and Paul arrived shortly after. We got any extra ropes and flashlights that we could, exchanged phone numbers, and the three of them were geared up and paddling almost immediately, and I told them that we would stay there until they got back. During this time Albie maintained communication with Sam's family.

Within minutes, I heard yelling and got a text from Stephen saying he was alive and that they needed more boaters. Confirmed with DNR that we wanted a fire/rescue boat crew with motor - which Officer Hilton immediately mobilized - and Albie and I immediately drove to get our boats.

At this point it was around 11:45pm and Albie and I started calling every kayaker and rafter in Fayette County we could think of. We were able to mobilize 7 or 8 more private boaters in a combined kayak/raft operation, and a multi-agency team for motor and medical support. These people were all rolling to the falls within minutes.

As Albie and I were geared up and putting on to further assist around 12:40am, I got a text from Stephen saying that they had him and were on our way. About 5 minutes later, a fire department boat had him on the dock and EMS officially took over.

Thanks to everybody who answered my phone calls and messages last night. Thanks to everybody for saving my friend's life. 

From Felicia Conyer on FB: What an awesome morning - I woke up to a text and a private message on FB that a kayaker had been rescued shortly after midnight, he was ALIVE!!

Yesterday on our way back from Fayetteville, Victor Shamblin and I stopped at Kanawha Falls to fish - it was approximately 6:25 pm. As soon as we got there, we saw a red kayak floating in the water upside down.   I called 911 a few minutes later and was told that they had already received a call, and that DNR was on their way. The kayak was circling in the water, but staying in the general area.

Thinking that perhaps the kayak had just gotten away from someone, I posted two pics on FB’s “Kayak WV” group with a message that basically said if you’re looking for this kayak, it’s here. Almost an hour goes by, and we’re getting ready to leave. Being the investigative-type person that I am, I notice a van in the parking lot (there were only a couple vehiclesleft) that belonged to a kayaker - he had a kayak license plate from TN. I start taking pictures of the van, when I notice a note on his window.

I call the number on the note, and Brandon Richmond answers the phone. I ask him if the video he captured was of a kayaker in a RED kayak.  He said yes. I explained the situation, and he was in disbelief, stating that the kayaker was by himself, and that he had last seen him just before 6:30 pm headed for the horseshoe area!  I hung up and called 911 back again, stating that I had already called, but was now pretty sure there was someone in the water that needed help. The dispatcher told me that someone had been dispatched earlier, and seeing a kayak tied to a tree, assumed everyone was ok. I told her that the kayak was still in the water floating in the same area, and told her that I would stay there until help arrived so that I could point out the kayak. 

A Fayette Co. officer arrives at about the same time a fishing boat was coming to shore. Vic runs down to the fisherman, who we later learned was Robbie Thaxton, and asked him if he could help retrieve the boat. Afraid that the kayaker was still in the kayak, Vic goes with him to help get the kayak.  They come back a short time later with the empty kayak. I took a picture of the kayak and sent it to Brandon, who confirmed that it WAS the kayak. He sent me a picture from the video he had taken. We were SICK, fearing that the kayaker was NOT ok!! 

Brandon told me exactly where he had last seen him, and later sent me a picture of the falls, and after talking to his boss who was also an experienced kayaker, sent me a picture of where the kayaker could possibly be trapped. I texted that picture to the Officer as well.

Ironically, I received a private message from a girl from TN stating that she believed she knew this kayaker, and asked me to describe the van.   Sure enough, it was her friend. During this same time (10:30ish), another person from the Gauley Falls area, sent me a private message stating she was listening to the scanner, and while it sounded like they were calling the search off, there was also mention of a Health Net being called to Valley High School. I was hopeful that he wasalive. After texting the officer to find out if he had been found, I was told that they hadn’t found him yet.

So from what I now know, after the official search had been called off for the night, a group of kayakers who were not willing to give up, went in with the intent of finding their fellow kayaker who was in desperate need. Fourteen minutes later, they found him stuck, but still alive, behind a waterfall.

The officer had texted me at 1:45 am with a group picture of the heroic men that saved the lives of the kayaker!!  I cried - I was so happy!!!  I went to send the awesome news to his TN friend, and saw where she too had messaged me through the night stating that her fellow team of kayaker friends had rescued her friend, and that he was alive!!

Is God good or what?? There’s no doubt that He put everyone there yesterday for a reason!!!  Had He not allowed the kayak to stay in that area to be seen (which in itself is a miracle), had Brandon not been videoing and left a note on the kayaker’s van, had I just walked away thinking I’d done my part by calling 911 the first time, had this group of kayakers not seen the post who knows what the outcome would have been!!!!  There is no way all of that was a coincidence.This kayaker had an Angel watching over him!

As far as the rescue itself, I know only that he was successfully extracted, after several hours behind the curtain, suffering from hypothermia, but otherwise ok. Rob Wallin's crew witnessed someone do something similar, earlier in the day, but that boater was able to get out from behind the curtain on his own.

Posted by Corey Lilly via FB: He swam at around 3 pm while paddling the high flow flow channel solo. I saw in the kayak West Virginia page that a boat had been found and that it was from a solo paddler. Based on the photo, I knew exactly where he was so I rallied Stephen Wright and Paul Griffin to go with me around 10pm after I heard search and rescue ended their search. We found him behind the curtain at High Flow on the river right pocket. We extracted him vertically up and out. He was behind the veil for 8+ hours and hypothermic.

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