Accident Database

Report ID# 115746

  • Swim into Rock or Sieve
  • Does not Apply
  • Other

Accident Description

Surviving under white water 7 minutes without air:

Paul D. Shinkman,

WASHINGTON -- While paddling the Chattooga River in 2003, Rod Baird became trapped beneath a rock in an intense rapid with seemingly no escape.

What followed was a string of improbable events that saved the experienced kayaker from an otherwise assured death.

Baird embarked on his river journey near Clatyon, Ga. that day with four other friends he had known for five to 20 years. The group of veteran adventurers included experts in kayak safety and rescue, and were "all very comfortable with one another's skills," he said.

The group had been paddling all day on the Five Falls area of the river, and were tired by the time they reached Hydroelectric Rock. This obstacle in the roaring river is aptly named for the narrow gap in its center, which, unlike other obstacles that divide the stream, forces water through it at speeds much faster than the surrounding river.

In retrospect, Baird said he would have walked around the rapid that day, but at the time the more dangerous conditions made it difficult to turn away.

"I had played too hard with all of my friends going down to that end of the river," he told WTOP. "We were being 'fun hogs,' and I probably had exceeded my stamina level when I got down to the rapid."

Baird doesn't remember anything about the day of the accident, but believes his weariness made it difficult for him to roll himself back up -- a maneuver serious kayakers practice to the point of reflex.

Video footage from the shore shows Baird's eerily lifeless upturned kayak floating toward the Hydroelectric Rock water trap.

He became wedged in the narrow opening, with water rushing over his body too quickly for him to be able to pull the release straps to "wet exit" the kayak, even if he were conscious.

Baird's friends acted quickly. Lee Belknap -- the chair of the American Whitewater Association safety committee -- climbed onto an adjacent rock to attach a line to the kayak, hoping to pull it back out of the opening. He passed the rope to neurologist Dr. Terry McGhee on shore, who said in the documentary he was pulling with all his might. But the kayak wouldn't budge.

The group scrambled for seven minutes to rescue their friend, who was continuously trapped underwater.

By chance, veteran river guide Travis Buck was nearby, and climbed onto the rock next to Belknap. He knew they would never be able to counteract the force of the water pinning Baird's kayak, and instead opted to push the craft through the hole in the direction of the river flow.

They freed the kayak, but Baird wasn't yet out of the woods.

His lifeless body came free from the kayak and floated downriver. The group was able to catch him before he went over another deadly rapid, and performed CPR on shore.

They carried Baird over a two mile trek through the woods on a makeshift stretcher, including commandeering a boat to cross a two mile lake obstacle. One member of the group ran ahead to a mountain ridge to get cell phone reception, and called for the ambulance that eventually transported Baird to a local hospital. He was stabilized, and transported to another hospital near his Ashville, N.C. home.

He went through weeks of recovery, including kidney dialysis and a drug-induced coma, but eventually emerged relatively unscathed.

It is unclear specifically what saved Baird's life, but experts who have studied his case have a few theories. A National Geographic special on Baird's story, which aired Sunday, employed a dive medicine specialist to capture the underwater environment at Hydroelectric Rock. It shows a series of air pockets formed by the churning water which may have supplied Baird with limited breaths.

Doctors in the documentary also point to the "mammalian diving reflex" -- an instinctive human reaction when the face senses cold water. The heart rate slows down and blood is drawn away from the body's extremities to provide more for the heart and brain.

Freedivers like Guillaume Nery use this principle to descend into depths of Dean's Blue Hole, the deepest in the world:

This reflex is particularly strong in Baird who, now in his 60s, remains an active outdoorsman around his home, hiking and biking thousands of miles a year.

But Baird attributes his survival to the expertise and resolve of his friends.

"I personally feel deeply indebted to these people," he said. "They, like most outdoor people, felt it was just something you're supposed to do for someone that you're with.

Adventurers employ a philosophy of "That's what you do when you're in that situation," said Baird.

"We've taken a pledge to do anything we can within our willingness to risk our lives to save your life."

He also points to the "unusually improbable chain of events," including having river guide Buck nearby, and McGhee's medical background which proved invaluable when bringing the ER string of doctors up to speed on Baird's condition.

"If they had failed, I would have died subsequent to drowning," he said.

Baird continues to kayak, though he doesn't use the boat that got him caught in hydroelectric rock.

"It is interesting when you look at an object you drowned in," he said of the craft hanging in his garage. "I see that boat and think 'Dammit,' and at the same time, 'Wow, I was able to survive in that boat through this harrowing accident.'"

He doesn't think he would ever be able to get rid of it, but also doesn't want to get back in.


August 30. 2003 11:05PM

The river's pull


Harrison Metzger
Times-News Staff Writer

Lee Belknap will never forget seeing his friend Rod Baird struggling to free himself from his kayak trapped beneath a boulder on the Chattooga River.

"I can tell you when he was fighting to get that breath it was perfectly clear to me that here was a man who wanted to live," said Belknap, 45, of Hendersonville.

On Sunday,_July 20, Baird and Belknap and four kayaking friends launched at the U.S. 76 bridge for the seven-mile trip down a segment of the Chattooga River known as Section IV. That day the water took on character that makes it a National Wild and Scenic River, which is to say pretty to look at, deceptively treacherous.

"We were having a beautiful day," said Robin Knupp, an expert kayaker and friend of Baird's. "The water was just fine and we were behind most of the traffic. Everybody was doing fine, though getting tired from so much playing."

Flowing from North Carolina, the Chattooga delineates the border of Georgia and South Carolina for 40 miles. It packs its biggest and hardest rapids into a 500-yard stretch called the Five Falls, just upstream of where it is silenced beneath Lake Tugaloo.

The Five Falls is a chaotic jumble of white foam crashing over, around and under dark granite carved into gnarled and twisted shapes by the river's current -- one reason the river has claimed 37 lives since the early 1970s.

To the untrained eye, the Chattooga is an enticing wonderland of rushing whitewater set against shores of dark evergreens and craggy banks. But it takes experience and skill to run the river, and Baird and his companions were all veteran adventure boaters. They included Belknap, an engineer with GE Lighting Systems in Hendersonville; Knupp; Belknap's girlfriend, Kathy Cody; Asheville neurologist Terry McGhee; and Annette DuPont, a physical therapist from Asheville.

Trouble at Jawbone

Jawbone is the fourth rapid in the Five Falls. The current drops to the left into a calm area called the Parking Lot, then funnels down 6 feet into a series of powerful waves. About 100 feet downstream, the flow splits around a boulder called Hydroelectric Rock and drops another 3 feet.

Several boaters over the years have flushed through the base of Hydroelectric Rock in an underwater cavern formed by the boulder and another rock. Upstream, in the main drop, another undercut rock called Decap juts from the right bank.

Kayak and canoeists usually paddle into the calm area above the main drop, crash through the waves at the bottom and then turn right or left to avoid Hydroelectric Rock. Baird's run went wrong.

"Rod came out of the Parking Lot too high," said Travis Buck, a raft guide and veteran kayaker who was watching from the shore next to Jawbone. "Basically it put him on a collision course. He got swept under Decap sideways and it really knocked him good."

Buck yelled to alert his friend, Stephen Morrison.

"I thought at the very least we would have a swimmer with a head injury," Buck said.

Baird rolled his kayak upright but appeared "a little dazed" as he washed through the waves toward Hydroelectric Rock, Buck said. Baird, others say, was still trying to right himself when he hit the boulder.

"He definitely hit his roll, but I'm afraid the little bell-ringing he had taken slowed him down," Buck said. "He got sucked right into Hydro and got stuck."

Fighting for air

McGhee, the neurologist, saw Baird's trouble from upstream. He grabbed the bow of Baird's kayak as he washed by, but was unable to overcome the force of the current to pull it out of the rock.

Baird's kayak went into the cavern stern first and washed most of the way through before getting stuck. He was trapped inside, underwater.

Unless someone could get to him quick, he was doomed.

Belknap, like McGhee, was sitting in his kayak in a small pool on the right above Hydroelectric Rock. In 26 years of paddling, Belknap had gotten in the habit of waiting at that spot, just in case anyone had trouble.

When Belknap saw the rushing current sweep Baird's kayak into the hole, he paddled around the back side of the boulder just in time to see the kayak become wedged under the rock.

"I wasn't sure if he was still in it," Belknap said. "I waited for a very short moment; a paddle came out, he was still nowhere in sight. Then his hand came out the water. He was reaching for anybody that might have been there."

Belknap paddled his kayak close to the rock.

"He grabbed hold of the nose of my boat and tried to get to the surface to breathe," he said. "With one possible exception, he couldn't get more than two inches from the surface."

The trapped kayaker tried several times to get air, and may have gotten a breath on one attempt. But then he went limp.

Belknap jumped out of his kayak into the deep water behind the rock. Lacking a handhold, he wedged his hands in a crack to climb up onto Hydroelectric Rock, holding onto his kayak with the other hand. Then he grabbed a rescue rope out of his boat and let his kayak drift away.

"At that point I had people on both sides of the river yelling to me. One threw a rope from river left. The other was Travis (Buck), who told me to stop everything and help him (get) on the rock. That seemed like the best plan."

Buck knew more about the danger than anyone. He had swum in the pool around Hydroelectric Rock at low water with a scuba mask and peered into the spot where Baird was wedged. But today the Chattooga was pulsating with a powerful current as he jumped from the shore.

Belknap threw him a rope but missed. He quickly tried again.

"I was sweeping by and with the three or four coils (of rope) in his hand he tagged me and pulled me up on the rock," Buck said.

Freed from Hydro

Buck had jumped in upstream of the same hole that had swallowed Baird.

"I really wasn't focused on much of anything but getting my butt on that rock and my hand on that boat," he said.

He turned to DuPont and Knupp, the two female kayakers who had stopped behind the rock, to give them instructions.

"He said, `As soon as I get him out of that rock you are going to start CPR,'" recalled DuPont, 34, a physical therapist at Care Partners of Asheville, Baird's business. "It wasn't, `if I get him out of the rock' but when. There was not a moment of hesitation in Travis's voice."

Buck grabbed the front of Baird's kayak and gave it one shove, then several more.

"I grabbed the bow loop and pushed and pushed and pushed until it let loose, then I turned around and jumped back in the water," he said.

Buck grabbed the front of Baird's kayak and started trying to tug him over to the shore, as Knupp and DuPont tried to assist from their kayaks. They knew that just downstream the river cascades over Sock 'em Dog, one of its most feared rapids.

"Rod's boat was full of water but he was still in it (upside down)," Knupp said. "We weren't getting anywhere. He was just so heavy you couldn't hold onto him."

Boaters running Sock 'em Dog must fight a strong right-to-left current to go over an underwater rock called the Launching Pad. That shoots the boater over a 6-foot sheer drop and over a hydraulic trap that can hold boaters or bodies. Holding the grab loop of Baird's kayak in one hand, Buck swam furiously for the right shore above the next drop.

"We ended up getting swept down to the next pool above the Dog," Buck said. "We were on the right bank but there was nothing to grab onto. We went through the gate rocks. I let go of his boat and caught the boater's eddy (on the right shore.)"

Buck looked downstream just in time to see Baird's unconscious body, now separated from the kayak, go off the Launching Pad.

"I don't think I ever felt so low in my life as I did crawling out of that eddy," Buck said, "because I really felt we had lost him."






September 01. 2003 12:46AM

the rescuers
`String of pearls'
A series of good breaks follows perilous bad breaks

Editor's note: This is the conclusion of a two-part package about the rescue of Asheville kayaker Rod Baird, who was trapped under a boulder on the Chattooga River on July 20. The story picks up after rescuers had freed Baird, only to see his unconscious body go tumbling over one of the most treacherous rapids on the river.

By Harrison Metzger

Times-News Staff Writer

River rescue expert Travis Buck had seen people swim Sock 'em Dog rapid before. But this time the victim was unconscious. Rod Baird, a 56-year-old Asheville health care consultant, had been in Buck's grasp. The 30-year-old Buck had held on to Baird's kayak and had swum to the river's right shore, but he had to let go to avoid being sucked into the next rapid.

Baird was out of his kayak now, swept downstream toward the Launching Pad, the horizon where the river plunges into Sock 'em Dog, one of its most dangerous rapids.

If Baird had gone to the left of the pad, he would have been caught in the deadly hydraulic trap at the base of the 6-foot falls or have become wedged beneath underwater rocks downstream.

Somehow he shot right over it.

At lower water levels in past summers, Buck had dived with a scuba mask in the pool below Sock 'em Dog and seen the underwater hazards. That gave him insight into why it is called "Dead Man's Pool."

"The rocks in the middle of the river are just wickedly undercut," he said. "I've seen swimmers who were in big life jackets with a lung full of air disappear for a long period of time and pop up downstream. Obviously, a swimmer with no air in his lungs is in a precarious position."

As Buck ran down the shore, he saw things for the paddling crew were going from bad to worse. A kayaker was getting hammered in her boat at the base of Sock 'em Dog. It was Annette DuPont, Baird's friend and a 34-year-old physical therapist at his business, Care Partners of Asheville.

Another of Baird's friends, 42-year-old Robin Knupp, had chased him down Sock 'em Dog after seeing him disappear over the edge. She and DuPont both got stuck in the hydraulic trap beneath the ledge.

"At this point I thought we were going to have another drowning," Buck said. "I just threw my hands in the air because there wasn't a damn thing I could do ... and went down and started dealing with Rod."

Buck's paddling partner Stephen Morrison had jumped in the pool below Sock 'em Dog and had swum with Baird's limp body to shore. Upstream, Knupp fought her way out of the rapid's grasp in her kayak and yelled for Morrison to strip off Baird's life jacket and get him on a level surface. DuPont swam out of the rapid.

Down for the count

About six minutes and 35 seconds had elapsed since the accident. The time frame was known because Milt Aiken, an Atlanta canoe paddler and producer of whitewater videos, taped part of the rescue.

Buck grabbed Baird around the waist and flipped him over, trying to force water from his lungs.

"He was purple, almost black, completely unresponsive with no pulse, no breathing," Buck said. "I just started barking orders, getting his crew motivated to do what they needed to do."

Swimming out of Sock 'em Dog, DuPont was one of the first people on the scene. She and her boyfriend, Asheville neurologist Terry McGhee, started cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Baird. The pint-sized DuPont clamped her mouth over Baird's to pump air into his water-filled lungs as McGhee rhythmically compressed Baird's chest.

After about five minutes, McGhee felt a pulse. A couple of minutes later Baird took a first weak, rasping breath.

DuPont, who is recertified in CPR every year, had practiced the procedure many times but never had performed it in an emergency. It had been decades since McGhee had performed CPR in an emergency, as a young intern.

"I had lost hope," said McGhee, 52, an expert kayaker and friend of Baird's for 15 years. "I thought there was no possible way he was coming back. When he took his first breath it just energized everybody."

Evacuation the hard way

If Baird's first breath recharged the rescuers, their struggle was far from over.

Buck sent other paddlers upstream to find a backboard that rafting companies stash near Corkscrew Rapid on the South Carolina side of the river for emergencies. But the group was on the Georgia side, where a rock wall and jumble of boulders make walking downstream impossible.

Lee Belknap, a veteran kayaker from Hendersonville, had been stranded atop Hydroelectric Rock after he had helped Buck free Baird. He swam across the river with the help of his girlfriend, Kathy Cody, to recover his kayak.

The group made a pontoon boat by lashing together Belknap's and Cody's kayaks. They loaded Baird on top and swam him across Dead Man's Pool to the South Carolina shore.

Then began a back-breaking hourlong carry over boulders and through dense brush. Several strong teenagers who were with Aiken, the Atlanta videographer, helped carry Baird as the group of 10 or so made its way downstream, passing the backboard up and over the huge rocks.

When some members of the group got discouraged or tried to rest, Buck refused to let them quit.

"We have one hour to get this man to advanced medical care, and that's it," he yelled to the group.

"It was terribly hard; Rod is not slight-framed," Buck said. "Everybody did great and pushed past the point where they had to give and then gave a little more."

Baird drew his wrists in close to his body and clenched his jaw. Buck and McGhee worried Baird was "posturing," a tense drawing in of the extremities that sometimes indicates brain damage or a patient near death. But Buck refused to allow the group to give in to despair.

"Travis was the real story there," McGhee said. "His determination and will not to ever put Rod down really saved his life."

Out of the wilderness

The group had planned to carry Baird out of the gorge at Possum Creek and had sent Morrison ahead to alert EMS. But nearing Lake Tugaloo they got word that another kayaker had been able to flag down a fishing boat. It was waiting downstream, but once again they would have to swim him across the river atop the kayaks.

"That was difficult because the river was a lot swifter than we thought," McGhee said. "We got washed down a long way. Then we carried him down on the riverbank on the right for another 10 minutes."

At the lake, they met a paddler who is also a firefighter/EMT from nearby Hall County, Ga. McGhee climbed aboard the boat with the EMT and left the rest of the group to hike back to recover the gear.

It took about 30 minutes for the slow fishing boat to cover the two miles down Lake Tugaloo to the boat ramp, where an ambulance was waiting. Baird's blood oxygen had dropped to 60 percent, far below the normal range of 95 to 100, McGhee said. But with oxygen from the ambulance, "in a few minutes he perked back up to about 87 percent."

At the emergency room of the Oconee County Hospital in Seneca, S.C., McGhee identified himself as a physician.

"The doctors immediately let me into the room and I had free range of the entire emergency room," McGhee said.

McGhee began making plans to get Baird to Mission St. Joseph's Hospital in Asheville while the Oconee County doctors ran a battery of tests. McGhee called Dr. Trent McCain at the Asheville hospital, who authorized an immediate transfer.

"We tried to get the helicopter (the Mission Air Medical Ambulance) to come, but it was rainy and foggy," McGhee said.

So McGhee rode in the ambulance with his friend, a trip that took about an hour and a half.

Back in Asheville, David Knupp, Robin's husband, sent out e-mails to his friends in the Western Carolina Paddlers club.

"He is stable and CAT scan came back good, and is responding somewhat," David Knupp said in a late-night e-mail.

It was the first of many e-mails sent out to the paddling community over the coming weeks. Paddlers and friends from across the country prayed and sent well wishes to Baird, his wife, Bess; daughter, Amber; and son, Grant.

"The Asheville community really pulled for Rod, and people from everywhere were praying for Rod," DuPont said.

Baird was sedated and put on a respirator. The next few days were excruciating for Baird's family and friends as they awaited some word.

Then on Wednesday, July 23, three days after the near drowning, Baird did something no one expected. For one day, he was able to come off the respirator, talk and even joke a bit.

"Things are looking excellent," Robin Knupp said in an e-mail. "When Rod is off his sedation, he is alert, motioning for water, recognizing people, giving the thumbs up sign, wondering what has happened to him."

The next day Baird had to go back on the ventilator under sedation. He remained in ICU for more than two weeks, recovering from lung and kidney damage. He was released Aug. 18 and is expected to make a full recovery.

The string of pearls

Baird was a founder and president of Visiting Health Professionals, which merged with Thom's Rehab to become Care Partners. VHP had three employees when it began in 1977 and 500 when it merged in 1997.

The Baltimore native is also conservation chairman for the Western Carolina Paddlers. Working with the river advocacy group American Whitewater, he has fought to force a Tennessee company to restore water for trout fishing and whitewater paddling to the Cheoah River in Graham County.

Baird remembers nothing of that day on the river. But he feels overwhelmed by the love and support people have given his family and him, and by the strength of his wife.

They have been together since they met at a high school pool party in 1964.

"How much I love my wife," he says when asked what he has learned. "She came through this without ever losing control. Bess is a lot tougher than I ever imagined her to be."

That was evident Aug. 5, as Bess Baird stood outside her husband's room in the ICU, greeting well-wishers and giving them hope for Baird's recovery. She reminded them of how her husband had been his old self on the one day he had been conscious.

"Rod's in there," she said, casting a loving glance at the man with the dark curly hair lying amid the sterile white sheets, tubes and beeping machines.

Bess Baird told visitors the same thing she told friends who helped rescue her husband.

"I said Rod is mentally the strongest person I have ever known and if anybody can make it through he's the one," she said.

Today, Baird speaks with amazement of the perfect alignment of events that saved his life.

"I view my life as a string of pearls, and each pearl is a string of luck," he said. "I started out with a black one, getting sucked into Hydro, then had this perfect string of luck that everyone there knew how to deal with a rescue scenario."

There was Buck, the rescue expert who just happened to walk back upstream to watch over Baird's group.

"For Travis to come along and do what he did, it was just like God sent an angel that day," DuPont said.

There was Belknap, who somehow scaled Hydroelectric Rock to help Buck onto the boulder, where he could free Baird's pinned boat.

And there was McGhee, "my own personal neurologist," as Baird calls him, who was on the scene to bring Baird back from near death and then shepherd him through the rescue portage, the boat ride, the ambulance ride and the Cardiopulmonary ICU in those first critical days.

Like everyone else on the trip, McGhee insists on no personal glory. "I did no more or less than anyone else," he says. "It was a team effort from 12 or 15 people, and if any one of those people hadn't been there, he wouldn't have gotten out."

One fewer ghost

Baird, who turns 57 on Saturday, is just happy to be alive.

His survival, he says, is a testament to physical conditioning, expert medical care and a daring and exhausting rescue by a group of friends and strangers who converged on the river that day.

"I just want to honor the other people who saved me," he said last week after being released from the hospital.

He and his friends plan to continue to paddle whitewater rivers, although he may not run Jawbone again, he said.

The Western Carolina Paddlers are planning a river rescue clinic; some members are making plans to renew their CPR training.

Travis Buck, who led the crew through the difficult parts of the rescue, has started guiding commercial raft trips again after a break. Of the thousands of rafters who have gone down the river since the 1970s, none has drowned, in part because of rescue professionals like Buck. But the Chattooga has claimed 37 lives over the years. In one of the deaths, Buck helped recover the body of a kayaker from Crack in the Rock rapids in the Five Falls.

"There's a lot of ghosts on this river," Buck said.

To sweep those ghosts from his head, Buck called Baird in the hospital "just to hear his voice." They are making plans to get together, along with other friends who were on and off the Chattooga that day.

"Lucky man," Buck said of the man who lived to tell of his near-death adventure, even if secondhand. "He's here to do something."

Senior reporter Harrison Metzger, a canoeing friend of Rod Baird's, is a canoeist who has paddled the Chattooga for more than 12 years. Metzger can be reached at 694-7875 or by e-mail at

"It's like a dog that bites you. Why go out with it again?"

(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)



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