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Accident Description


The "Chain of Rocks" area on the Missisippi River is near St. Louis. MO. It offers a number of powerful Class III play features in late summer and fall, when water levels are low. Most of the action is a good distance from shore, and a very dangerous hole (Oil Can Hole) lurks towards the center.

Charlie Schulman and his partner were both experienced paddlers. They had strong rolls and were quite familiar with the area. On October 6, 1983 the entered the river at 3:30 pm and moved easily from one play spot to another. At about 5:00 pm they headed back, ferrying across the river behind the boil line of a sizeable hydraulic. This route, whichg requires strong paddling skills, had been used without incident for about 15 years.

Here is an account of what happened in the words of the survivor, Herm Smith:

"As was my habitual custom, I warned him to stay slightly below the boil line as we ferried.....I heard him yell for help behind me, turned to view him, lost my concentration, and found myself drawn into the hydraulic as he had been.....I tried surfing.....it was apparent that I would lose my energy too fast trying to stay in the boat. I knew from the accounts of other boaters who had been trapped here that it was possible to stand......I wet exited.....I saw Charlie standing ten yards away from me in a more violent part of the hole.

"I had been told that the right side of the hole was not as strong and offered a possible escape. But the water pushed (left), into the most dangerous part (of the hole). I worked slowly (left) so I could discuss with Charlie my plan for getting out. I urged him to hold onto my boat for stability and told him I felt we could slowly crab out of the hole. He nodded, and started to grab (my boat), but (lost his footing and) got sucked down and came up gasping for breath. I enmcouraged him to follow me but he only nodded.....concentrating on staying on his feet.

I was concerned about his inaction.....I discussed diving under the hydraulic to escape.....I tried twice.....the attempt was sapping too much strength. We were being drawn slowly into the worst part of the hole. I urged Charlie to move to the right, He nodded, and commented that our situation didn't look good......We neared the most violent part of the hole.....his boat was thrown back at us.....paddles started to fly.....a surge of water knocked us over.....I came up panicked for the first time, and grabbed a cockpit rim. Charlie appeared and stood motionless.

I felt a rope under me.....I went under to unravel it.....I tried to put the throw bag back into my boat.....I lost my stability.....boats and paddles went flying in different directions.....I panicked again. I surfaced next to Charlie's boat, and he came up next to mine.....Charlie  mentioned that he was getting tangled in the rope.....I offered my Tekna (knife).....he said he thought he could work free.....He went under. When he came up he looked shaken and exhausted. He never spoke to me again.

My morale was badly shaken by his silence.....It was getting towards dusk. I could see people on the Illinois shore, a half a mile away. My warmup pants werre being dragged me under. I managedv to surface next to Charlie's boat. I was reaching exhaustion. I retutned to my strategy of conserving energy.....but I was alarmed.

Within minutes Charlie was pulled under, He did not resurface standing, but floated on his back as he was dragged into the center of the hydraulic.....he was recycled three times.....he was not going to make it. I could see the rope entangled on his body.

(My thoughts turned to my own survival. I was afraid I might no longer have enough energy.....I concentrated on careful, slow crabbing to the right. Several limes I lost my footing.....suddenly about five feet from the edge of the hole I popped free.....I was too exhausted to hand paddle.....It was 5:40.....I drifted slowly.....to the St Louis Water Treatment Plant and called police. A Coast Guard boat found Charlie's body drifting in the eddy, badly tangled in the safety line.

1) Dams are dangerous. Once you cross the boil line you are in desperate trouble.

2) The first duty of the rescuer is to himself. Herm Smith risked his life to save his friend by getting deeper into the hole when he could have escaped easily. A better strategy, suggested by Smith, would havbe been to get free and used his throw line, working in his kayak well behind the boil.. By turning over and swamping the kayak he could have pulled his friend free.

3) Stow throw-lines carefully. A loose rope can be a deadly complication in swift water. A knife would have allowed Charlie to cut the rope and avoid entanglement