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Accident Description


Near Phonecia, NY: June 6, 1992

Volume 2000+ cfs; Classification III

SUMMARY: On June 6, 1992 the Rhode Island Canoe Association suffered the first fatality in its 15 year history. Gordon McKinney drowned when his canoe was pinned against a bridge abutment during a high water run on Esopus Creek. Dozens of paddlers and rescue personnel made a massive, but unsuccessful effort to save his life.

DESCRIPTION: The Esopus Creek near Phonecia, New York is a popular class I-III whitewater run in the Catskill Mountain region several hours north of New York City. It is normally a mellow class I-II run except for Railroad Rapid, a strong class III. This was the site of an annual slalom race, and many paddlers travelled to the area to take advantage of the water. The area received 5" of rain in preceding day. The river crested at 10' that evening. It dropped to about 9' the following day and was still falling. Although this is about one foot below flood stage and more than double the normal release flows, it was not a particularly dangerous level. The river was much faster and pushier, and had fewer eddies than usual. Difficulty is estimated at class III.

Gordon McKinney, 57, had been paddling whitewater for a little over a year, and had participated in the club's whitewater training program. He and his wife were wearing wetsuits, PFD's, and helmets, and paddled an Old Town Tripper, fully outfitted with thigh straps and float bags. The group consisted of five people, all but one of whom had been down the river during previous water releases. They ran the river slowly and carefully. The McKinney's took a short swim at Railroad Rapids, but were pulled in quickly by a group of AMC paddlers.

Several of the group eddied out above the Bridge Street bridge in Phonecia. The McKinney's canoe had swamped in waves just upstream, and they decided to run straight through to the takeout just below the bridge. No witnesses to the moment of impact have been found, but the canoe wrapped completely around one of the metal bridge piers. The boat was completely under water in what onlookers call the worst pin they had ever seen. McKinney's wife washed free, but he remained trapped between the boat and the bridge pier. 

The following is a description of the rescue by Bret Watson, a member of the Boston AMC who was one of several key people at the scene. I have added a few facts gained from other reports to his account, which began (according to Greg Phillips, who worked with him under the bridge) at around

2:00 pm.

"I heard whistles, shouting, and people calling my name. I could tell it was serious. I paddled downstream until I could hear them clearly. "There is a person in there" they screamed, pointing at the bridge abutment. At first I couldn't see anything wrong, but as I got closer I saw a green canoe submerged and wrapped around the abutment. There was a helmet bobbing up and down behind the canoe.

"I eddied out among the bridge supports below the wrapped canoe. I could clearly see a person trapped near the surface, waving his arm frantically for help. I paddled up and placed the nose of my boat underneath him; he grabbed it and tried to hold himself up for a few moments. When he let go I got out of my boat and climbed onto a 6" wide bridge support about 2 feet above the water. As I was getting out Greg Phillips, our group's tripleader, arrived. The water was curling behind the bridge and over the canoe's gunwales directly onto the victim, rising and falling about one foot. I scurried along the bridge support, grabbed the victim, and tried to get his head to the surface. I got one arm under his body and another supporting his head but couldn't lift him completely clear of the pulsating water. He was conscious, so I tried to calm him and assure him that we would get him out.

"Greg came alongside and we discussed our options. At top bottom of the surge his head was entirely submerged and at the bottom of the pulse I had to tilt his head back to keep his mouth above water. I tried to cup my hands above his mouth to deflect some of the water. The water rose again, and when it fell the victim's eyes were wide open and frozen in a blank stare. He no longer responded to me at all.

"I supported him with one arm and tried to slide my hand down his leg around the piling and along the bottom of the canoe. His legs were definitely pinned around the piling. In desperation we made several attempts to pull his legs free. When I was reaching at his legs the water threatened to push me off the bridge, and I realized that I should support the victim while Greg worked along to get him loose. There were lots of people on shore and on the bridge, but our ability to communicate with them was very limited.

"A raft containing several people ferried out to us from shore. We fastened the raft to the bridge, and from this platform a man named Dan was able to attempt mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I held the victim's head, positioning his jaw and pinching his nose while Dan breathed into him. Dan was underwater most of the time. During this time Greg was still trying to work the victim's legs free.

"During this time several ropes were lowered from the bridge. A rope attached to a thwart broke, cutting Greg's hand with a flying carabiner.  He decided it was not serious enough to stop him from working. At this point a steel cable was lowered down, which we attached to the boat."

We now pick up the account from the vantage point of Tom Crocet, a paddler and climber working with the Phonecia Ambulance Service.

"The firemen lowered a steel cable was lowered from the bridge down to the rescuers" I observed that the winch cable had been attached to something. The people below were attempting to communicate, but the roar of the river was drowning out their voices. Likewise the firemen were trying to yell to the rescuers but it was obvious that they could not be heard either.....The firemen started to use the truck winch to raise the cable. It made "groaning" noises, and several strands of the cable actually broke!.....Everyone was concerned that the cable might snap, injuring the trapped boater, the rescuers, or even the people standing on the bridge. Then something "gave" and the cable went slack....

"I suggested that more lines be lowered so that the pull could be applied at different angles. This was done, but we still could not communicate.....I thought about lowering a portable radio, but was concerned that no one down there had a free hand. I also doubted that they had the training needed to operate the radio, or that they could keep it dry. I decided that I could rappel part-way down so that I could communicate with the rescuers on the bridge and in the water.

"I shouted my plans to the firefighters. They produced a kernmantle rope; I cut 15' off and improvised a Swiss seat rappel harness..... A fireman threw a life jacket on me.....I took the remainder of the kernmantle rope and rigged an anchor point to the guard rail. Scott from the mountain climbing store on Main Street  arrived with a long rappel rope. I asked him to "manage" my rappel and to cut the line if I became fouled in the rope while in the water.....I had to improvise a carabiner wrap as a descender. Just as I was about to go over the guard rail one of the firemen took my watch and wallet.....They offered me a helmet, but I refused. It was already too difficult to hear above the water, and the helmet might make it impossible. 

"It was only a short rappel down the bridge abutment to water level. The wave action tossed the rescuers back and forth and submerged the trapped boater. In between waves the rescuers were breathing a quick breath into the victim. Their actions were calm and confident. Another rescuer was attaching one of the lowered lines to the canoe. He needed slack; I relayed the message up to the firemen. Another rope was attached to the canoe, and a third to the victim himself.....Denis McLean and another open boater set up a tag line downstream to act as back-up.

"It was necessary to pull on the correct ropes, but not the line attached to the victim. I relayed the instructions to the firemen. As I looked at the deck of the bridge it was like an advertisement for a gym, with dozens of strong hands, straining forearms, and bulging biceps pulling on the ropes. They were actually stronger than the winch, and were able to move the boat. The kayakers pulled the victim free of the pinned boat, and he was lifted on the line attached to him up to the bridge where many hands passed him over the guard-rail.

"The canoe was still being raised. Since I was still dangling on my rappel rope squarely in its path I was concerned that I was going to be caught there. I elected to rappel off the end of the rope, then swim to shore. I drew my knife so I could cut myself free if necessary, but it was not needed. I lost my glasses swimming through some waves after I hit the water, but was picked up by a kayaker and towed to shore. I heard the ambulance leave as I headed upriver to return the gear to the firefighters and retrieve my wallet and watch."

McKinney was transported to Kingston Hospital where he was pronounced dead. Two fire companies, four rescue squads, several police departments, and an ambulance service had responded to the accident.

SOURCE: Bret Watson; Jim Cavo, Tom Crocet, Walter Romanachuk, Nancy Mackey, Greg Phillips, Kevin Allsworth (RICA Safety Chair), Fran and Al Brailey (AMC), Don Getzin (AMC), Alan August (RICA), The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC)  Paddle Splashes, The Rhode Island Canoe Assn. (RICA) Paddler, Ulster County Townsman; Kingston Sunday Freedman


1) (Braley's) While the Esopus or other popular rivers may be crowded, paddlers cannot be expected to look after another groups. While providing assistance is a tradition among whitewater paddlers, it cannot be taken for granted that there will always be experienced people on hand. The McKinneys got help from Boston AMC paddlers twice, and were clearly paddling at or beyond their ability.

2) (Braley's) The Rhode Island group may have been unaware that a water release, which maintains a constant level throughout the run, is quite different from natural flow. After a heavy rain, usually dry creek beds dump additional water into the river as it moves downstream. Woodland Creek, just above Railroad Rapids, and Stony Creek, just above the Route 28 bridge, each carry a considerable flow. Thus while the river at the put-in may have only looked like a "normal release level", the flow downstream was much higher and more dangerous.

2) (August) The McKinney's Canoe was headed straight downstream just prior to the pin. Contrary to what you might expect, a broach does not require a sideways impact. In fact, a sideways canoe must strike very close to the center or it will rotate off. A straight-on hit, however, brings the boat to a dead stop. Now, in the blink of an eyelash, the current can turn the boat and slide it against an obstruction with equal pressure at both ends. This happened to me on a rock years ago and the time between impact and a solid wrap was about one second.

2) (August) A canoe usually flips upstream, exposing the open top of the canoe to the current. In this pin, the boat was wrapped with the hull facing the current. It is possible that McKinney reacted properly by leaning downstream, causing the unusual position. There is a possibility that McKinney was caught in his thigh straps, but the rescuers reported cutting several pieces of webbing without releasing him. He was probably pinned between the canoe and the bridge abutment.

5) (Walbridge) There has been some criticism of the organization and communication during this rescue. People arriving on the scene with a designated leader and a full team can take exercise considerable control, but it takes time to get a unit like this into position. Paddler-assisted rescues typically evolve differently. Trained people converge on the scene, survey the scene, and perform the necessary tasks without a formal command structure. If a rescue is very complicated, these folks must communicate with each other. This is a difficult, messy process, but is still much faster than waiting for outside help.

I see no logical way that someone could have designated themselves as the leader and exert authority over everyone, and am grateful that the local authorities chose to work with paddlers at the scene.

In this case, experienced people responded to perform the various tasks without being ordered to do so by a leader. Some people supported the victim, which is the most essential job. Others moved into a position on the bridge and on shore where they could assist, and still others provided upstream spotting and downstream backup. One person sa a need and served as a communications link between the various groups. As with most life-or-death situations, the situation did not unfold clearly and logically, intelligence and determination was needed to make progress. I was impressed by the initiative and competence of the individuals and groups who pulled this operation together.

Paddlers with rescue training who come upon a rescue in progress can best assist identifying and performing tasks that are not being done. Unless the group at the scene is quite inexperienced, anyone who tries to "take over" will usually end up getting in the way.