Accident Database

Report ID# 1146

  • Impact/Trauma
  • Near Drowning
  • Physical Trauma
  • Other

Accident Description


“Our group of three was running Big Sandy near Bruceton Mills, West Virginia , on July 9, 1998. At Big Splat, one paddler ran the drop, the other elected to portage. Nick Lipkowski had run Big Splat before under similar conditions (5.4 feet at Rockville ). I asked Nick if he wanted me to set up a rope but he replied that he was not going to run.

“Sometime during my carry, Nick changed his mind. He signaled that he intended to run, and started down before safety was in place. He cleared the opening drop and made the left eddy. Then he peeled out with too much momentum and struck the river right wall. Attempting to correct, he caught an edge and flipped. He blew two roll attempts, panicked, and punched out just above the lip. He washed over the drop river right behind Splat rock.

“As I completed the portage, I looked back upstream to see Nick’s kayak emerging from the base of the falls. I shouted and started moving upriver. My other friend scanned the area above the falls, then started to throw his rope into the backwash. It was one to two minutes before I spotted Nick downstream, weakly swimming towards shore on the left below the drop. My relief upon seeing him alive was swiftly tempered by his appearance as I approached. The force of the water had torn off his PFD, sports glasses, boating shoes, and neoprene socks. There was probably not a spot on him larger than a pair of open hands that did not contain a laceration or bruise. His lower leg had a large laceration that cut to the bone.

“One of our group is a resident physician at a hospital in Morgantown . He examined Nick’s injuries. The leg injury had been caused by a fairly blunt object, and the flesh was torn rather than cut. No major blood vessels had been severed. Other surface wounds were comparatively minor. But when we attempted to move Nick, his leg collapsed under him. He stated that he thought it was broken. We later found out that the bone was intact but several ligaments around the knee had been torn.

“Eric fashioned an air splint from a stern float bag, a PFD, and a throw rope. We ferried Nick over to river right and began to carry him out. He was in pain, but his condition was stable. The cavalry arrived just before we began moving him up a steep slope to the old railway grade that follows the river. Several parties of boaters arrived at Big Splat and we flagged them down. I cannot thank these people enough for taking time out to assist us.

One boater blitzed the remained of the run to call an ambulance and arrange for a 4WD vehicle to meet us a Wonder Falls . Another individual allowed us to use his IK (ducky) as a stretcher. Nick was covered with a space blanket and lashed to the IK with a throw rope. Several NRS straps became carrying handles as we carried Nick out. Even with eight people carrying and several others clearing the path and relieving the carriers, it took at least 90 minutes to reach Wonder Falls , a distance of less than two miles.

“WE were met partway by firemen and paramedics from Bruceton Mills. They reassessed Nick’s condition and helped us complete the carry. We were told that a Medivac would meet us at Wonder Falls . The chopper pilot executed a beautiful landing on the rock shelf and Nick was taken to Ruby Memorial in Morgantown . He has since made a complete recovery and is boating again.

SOURCE: Dag Grada, in the CWWA Newsletter

ANALYSIS: (Grada) I will refrain from commenting on Nicks’ decision to run as I am sure that many others will be glad to do so. Nick is painfully aware (and will be for some time) of the consequences of his decision. I’m glad that he lived to tell the tale. But there are two things that I will comment on:

First, EMS was confused as to the location of the accident. For future reference (filed as: hope it’s not necessary), Wonder Falls is known to the locals as Big Falls ; Big Splat is known as Little Falls.

The second point is something that I am guilty of. For many  years, I carried a first aid kit, breakdown paddle, and a drybag full of rescue gear. Many times, I was the only on in a group lugging this extra weight around. That day on the Big Sandy I was running without it. I am thankful that my negligence did not cause the loss of a friend. I am thankful that other individuals had this “extra weight” along, and I will be restocking my boat.

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