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Accident Description

On September 25, 1999 Ryan Allison, 16, was participated in a high school field trip to NOC as part of a business class. Her group elected to rent a raft for a trip down the Nantahala. In Patton's Run, the first Class III rapid. The group's raft hit a rock suddenly and hung up on the left side of the river, just above the final ledge. Four of eight paddlers were thrown into the water. Allison, floating feet-first and face down, apparently attempted to stand and caught her foot in the riverbed. She disappeared under about 3 feet of fast-moving water. The other students first noticed that she was missing when her PFD floated free.

An NOC guided trip arrived about 15 minutes later. The trip leader, belayed in a rescue PFD, was able to work his way out and grab one of the victim's hands. Ropes were attached, and the guides pulled from several directions for fifteen minutes until the victim floated free. They brought her to a slippery ledge and began CPR. Total elapsed time from the moment of arrival: four minutes. Rescue squads arrived a few minutes later and took Allison to a hospital where she was pronounced dead.

Ms. Ryan’s mother sued both NOC and the high school. A key question was whether her mother had been informed of the nature of the trip prior to leaving, so she could give her consent. She said she did not know her daughter was going whitewater rafting. Also at issue: did NOC act properly in renting to the students even though no adult would be going along. None of the students had reached 18, although one was a few months away. Their faculty advisor declined to participate because of a heart condition. The case was settled out of court.

SOURCE: Conversations with NOC staff members

ANALYSIS: (Walbridge)

1. It is difficult to imagine what more could have been done to prevent this tragedy. The Nantahala is heavily used, with dozens of outfitters and tens of thousands of rental guests making successful runs each year. NOC takes great pains to prepare their rental guests. In addition to signing a waiver warning them of the dangers, clients are required to watch an orientation video which specifically discusses foot entrapment. Anyone not wishing to take the trip after seeing the video has the option of signing up for a guided trip or receiving a refund. In addition, the bus driver discusses the lines through Nantahala Falls and Patton's Run during the drive to the put-in.

2. Youth are a very important part of every outfitters business. Although society recognizes the differences between kids and young adults with such things as drivers licenses, hunting licenses, and work permits, similar law has not been developed for adventure sports activities. A release signed by a minor is not considered binding, nor does the signature of a supervising adult like a scout leader or camp director carry any weight. There is even a question as to whether a parent’s signature offers protection.. Until this is changed, any time a minor dies outfitters will be open to lawsuits from survivors.

3. Several hundred thousand people travel the Nantahala each year, of which over 100,000 are rental rafters. NOC is the largest outfitter on the river, with 50% of all commercial guests, both guided and rental. I believe that if enough people travel down a river, regardless of difficulty, some of them will get hurt or killed. That both accidents would occur so close to each other and involve the same outfitter is a cruel statistical quirk.