PADDLERS TO THE RESCUE IN MATHER GORGE!!
Date: Saturday, July 10, 2021
Time: approximately 11:15am to 11:45am
Location: Mather Gorge, Potomac River
Water level: about 3.1 feet (3,400 cfs) at Little Falls
Weather: 85F and mostly sunny; Water temperature: 86F
Victim: a seven-year-old boy. First Name Anish
Kayakers/Rescuers: John Alden, Rich Schneider, Bill Collier, and Michael Graham (writer)
At about 11:15am, the kayakers were in the river-right eddy below Rocky Island rapid and preparing to attain the rapid. Rock climbers on the VA-side cliffs overlooking the Potomac and upstream of the Rocky Island rapid called to the kayakers to alert them of a person in the water. The kayakers saw the boy on river left, about 5 feet off the Rocky Island shore, and about 20 yards upstream of the Rocky Island rapid. The boy was very low in the water and did not appear to be getting a breath or trying to swim. The kayakers all quickly ferried to river left to try to intercept the boy. I was able to attain toward the boy as he entered the rapid, but he disappeared under water at the first wave. As I started to paddle up to where I last saw the boy, I noticed him floating listlessly about one foot below my boat and was able to quickly grab his shirt before he sank low.
When I pulled the boy onto the deck of my kayak, he was non-responsive (did not speak or try to hold on) but did start gasping and then breathing. I could not release the boy and paddle without him falling back in. The other kayakers quickly and without direction surrounded me and helped hold the boy out of the water. We calmly reassured the boy that he was safe. Within about two minutes, the boy started becoming responsive. We asked his name and used his name to continue to calmly assure him he was safe. Rich took off his PFD and loosely secured it to the boy. Rich and John steadied my boat and moved the boy to the rear deck of my boat. At this point, we were about halfway to Wetbottom rapid and moving into the large eddy behind Rocky Island. I paddled to the Maryland shore because it was closer.
Once on shore, the boy became adamant that he needed to get to the Virginia shore to re-connect with his parents. He did not know the phone number for either parent so I called 911 (thinking that, if the parent called 911, the operator could let them know their son was safe). The 911 call was placed at 11:39am.
We decided we could safely transport the boy to the VA side. Rich secured the PFD to the boy very well and we had the boy lay on the back deck while holding my waist. John went ahead to find the parents. Rich and Bill flanked me as we ferried back without incident. We got the boy to the shore just as John returned with the parents.
I am a current L4 SWR instructor, L4 WW kayaker with WFA certification. I credit the training with being calm during the rescue. We were all paddling well within our abilities in the water we rescued the child and, at no point, were we ever in danger of becoming part of the problem. I have second-guessed myself about returning the child to the Virginia side of the river but, once we had the PFD secured to him, I am absolutely confident that no one was placed in danger by returning the child to his parent. I credit the experience, training, and kayaking skill of the other kayakers that the rescue went so smoothly. Looking back, it felt like everything went very smoothly. No one yelled or got in the way. Everyone picked a task and did it.
I note that there were at least 20 people observing the drowning boy before they could have seen the kayakers. None of these bystanders jumped in to help the child. It may be that, unless there was an expert swimmer among them, if any of these people jumped in, they may have been another victim. Still, it surprised me, and it drove home the point that the boy would have died if the kayakers had not been there exactly at that time.
After re-uniting the child with his parents, I continued attaining up above Rocky Island rapid with the hope of reaching Portage rapid. However, just above Rocky Island rapid, I discovered a man (about 30) on a rock just off the VA shore at a location where it did not seem possible to climb out from. He asked if the boy was ok. I said yes. He said he was free climbing the rocks and the boy was doing the same above him (the man did not know the boy). The boy fell and knocked him off the cliff and into the river. The man said he tried to save the boy but was only able to save himself and was now trapped on the rock. After a brief discussion, I had him grab the strap on the stern of my boat and I took him to the trail below Rocky Island rapid.
After I dropped off the man (second victim), I continued downstream. VA and MD Search and Rescue arrived in their motorized inflatables and I gave them an incident report. While Search and Rescue did arrive very quickly, I am certain the boy would have been dead because the boy certainly seconds from passing out and filling his lungs with water when we got him out of the water.
The water in this stretch of the Potomac is very swirly and it is hard to get to shore because of the eddy waves. The fact that a fit man in his 30’s fell in with the child and only managed to save himself drives home how dangerous those waters are without a PFD.