Three days after being caught in a pin and receiving CPR, this paddler was in a coma and the prognosis was not very good. Paul died in the hospital on the evening of January 10, 2006.
A few times in your life, something happens that makes you reconsider your priorities. Yesterday was one of them. I had been lazy yesterday morning following a late New Years Eve and didn't start trying to connect with a paddling group until late morning. One group couldn't paddle, one group backed out, and I didn't like where the third group was going so I blew it off. I ended up in the Lake Lure / Chimney Rock without my gear, in hiking clothes, to look at property and maybe hike up to Rumbling Bald to scout some climbing routes. When I got to the top of the lake, I figured I would take a look at the Rocky Broad. Though it's only ten miles from home, I've not run this river. I've looked at it a couple of times and didn't like what I saw.
After driving to the URB, hoping to see someone put on, I didn't so I headed back toward Chimney Rock. I passed a group of four putting on the LRB. I waited for them to peel out and was going to pace them down the river and watch the lines through some of the tricky stuff. About two hundred yards from the put in came the first tough move - a dive hard right through a pencil sharpener slot that looked easy to screw up. The last guy screwed it up and flipped and took a pretty unpleasant looking ride over two shallow ledges. When things finally calmed down, he failed to hit his roll and swam. The group eddied out to collect gear and regroup. The guy that swam looked shaken up, but okay. He walked off the river from that point - something I didn't know for about 45 minutes.
I drove down to below Walker Falls to try to get a view of how to paddle this rapid. Those of you who run it have probably forgotten how ugly it looks. The line looks obvious, but it's an important move and doesn't look vey pretty. I was parked on the opposite side of the street and was looking upriver from behind an iron fence that someone has erected to keep anyone from being able to see his private waterfall. The group (of three by this point) arrived and eddied out above Walker to scout. One stayed on the high rock river right on the main drop and set safey with a rope in hand. Then came the first paddler. The water level (medium) made the entrance very squirrely. The line is to drop over a small ledge into a hole which feeds into a turbulent pool that is pushing river right toward a sieve. Once through the hole, you have to drive back left and boof off the seven foot drop between two rocks. The paddler dopped into the pool and hesitated. The my only theory is that he didn't trust what he was seeing and in his hesitation was pushed right. River right is blocked by a house sized boulder that forms the top pool. Between this huge bolder and the intended line is another tall boulder that is laying up against the big one. A lot of water pours between the two, and the gap between them narrows as it goes under water. A sieve. This is the obstacle that makes the move left critical.
By the time the paddler got his bearings, he washed sideways into the sieve boulder. What I saw next, I am having a hard time putting out of my mind. The paddler broached on the sieve rock, which put his boat on on it's side. And then he dropped on his side into the sieve, four feet under water - and pinned hard. It took me a second to register and accept what I was seeing. His buddy on the rock immediately threw a rope to him. I knew this was futile. After about 45 seconds, I saw the victim raise his hand out of the water, and that was it. The other guy was now out of his boat and up on the rock. By this time I was clawing my way through barbed wire to get down to the water.
The victims buddies were trying to effect some kind of rescue effort but the location of the pinned boat made it very hard to get to. One guy tied a rope to the back loop of his rescue vest while his buddy lowered him down with a body friction belay. The only sign of the victim was the last foot of the kayak stern sticking out of the water. He managed to tie a rope to the stern grab handle of the boat and the guy up top was pulling with everything he had. It didn't budge. I was now down on the rocks, on the opposite side of the river, thirty feet from the problem.
They yelled at me to dial 911. Fortunately, a woman was up on the road taking photos and I signaled for her to call, which she did promptly. I looked at my watch 3:31pm. I estimated the victim had been trapped underwater for about four minutes. My phone was 200 yards away in my truck. I turned back to the accident. Their efforts to pull the boat free were absolutely ineffective. I could see the rope stretching under load and absolutely no movement from the pinned boat. I considered diving in to swim to the base of the falls. I thought it might be possible to reach the boat from beneath but the water exiting the bottom of the sieve and falls would have made it impossible. His rescuers efforts were coordinated but by now, panic and frustration were clearly setting in.
There was nothing I could do. In 41 years, I have never felt so helpless. I considered walking away, but could'nt. Five minutes. I yelled at the two guys and got their attention. I told them to lower down to beneath the falls and try to push up on the pinned boat. They did. The one on the line put himself in danger trying to reach the boat. He could get his hands on it but there was no footing, no purchase. He fell into the water at the base of the sieve several times and I got very concerned that he was going to suffer a foot entrapment. Six minutes.
I turned to move downstream thinking that if the boat came out, they were going to need help getting him to shore. But I knew it wasn't coming out. And then I heard one of them yell the victims name and I looked back. The pinned boat just slid right out. The guy on the end of the line was in the water, trailing the safety rope tied to his back. I was scrambling down the rocks and got below them. There was only one chance to get him to shore quickly because the next rapids were right around the corner. I jumped in (in my street clothes) and the two of us wrestled the boat to shore - upside down. His buddy asked me if I knew CPR. The shore was sloping rock and getting footing was hard. I told his buddy to get his head out of the water which was difficult. We drug boat and victim onto shore. He was a big guy and pulling him to shore in his boat was incredibly hard. My adrenilin was surging. We started trying to get him out of the boat. I pulled the skirt and his waste came out but his right foot was stuck in the boat. It was then I realized that the bottom of his kayak had been crushed so severely that his right foot was trapped. He was in a Blisstick Mystic and I know they are well made. I started yanking on the victim's right leg, hard enough that I was thinking i might break his ankle. His foot came out. Victim, boat and buddy were tangled in nylon runners and safety line.
We rolled the victim onto his back. By this time I knew the victim's name was Paul. Paul was dead - blue and no sign of life. I rolled him over onto his stomach again and compressed his chest and stomach, trying to clear water from his lungs. Muddy water flowed from his mouth and nose. I can't tell you how difficult it is to move a two hundred pound man around when he is dead weight. I removed Paul's helmet and we started cutting his drytop away with Matthews knife. We rolled him back over and I began chest compressions. I knew at this time I was going to have to lead the CPR and straightened the victims neck and tried to establish an airway. I began mouth to mouth breathing and his buddy took over on chest compressions. The other guy was there now and we all took turns on compressions and rescue breathing. I wasn't easy. I looked at my watch - 3:38.
The whole time I was telling his friends that the cold water buys time. I was hoping I was right. Then I recalled an accident report I had read some time ago about how the trachea can spasm close when a victim drowns in cold water. I rolled Paul over again and compressed his chest again. More muddy water. We checked for pulse again. His buddy (Matthew) said "no sign of life". I straightened Paul's neck again and we resumed CPR. We yelled Pauls name, I slapped him - anything hoping to startle him back to life. I heard the first siren. Fearful that the rescue squad wouldn't see us, I sprinted to the road. I was despertate for someone with training and equipment to relieve me and Paul's buddies from the responsibility for saving Pauls life. I yelled for a defribrillator and O2. The two guys were in a pickup truck with fire dept logos, but told me they had no equipment - that rescue was on the way. I ran back to the river and we began taking turns again. Paul was still blue and had no pulse. It had been somewhere close to twelve minutes.
From the time I went into the water to help get Paul to shore, I knew he would be dead but I was confident that we could revive him. Now I was losing hope and the passage of time was deeply disturbing. By my estimate, it had been 15 minutes when EMTs arrived on scene. I yelled for a defribrillator and a sheriff had one in his hand. I was told to continue chest compressions while they attached the leads. It was one of the portable types that searches for a pulse and then makes recommendations. The display detected a faint pulse and recommended against shock. I stopped chest compressions and by now the EMTs were administering air and 02 with one of those bulbs that you sqeeze. I walked away and splashed river water in my face and mouth. The EMT's requested an airlift. They began the long process of evacuating him to Lake Lure for airlift. I gathered Pauls gear, drained his boat, and carried it to the parking area.
Another group of boaters walked around with very somber looks on their faces and I asked them for help getting Matthews boat to shore, which had washed downriver during the rescue. We got his boat out and there was nothing left to do. I'm sorrry that I don't know all the names - there was no point and no time. Buddy number one was Matthew. Buddy number two I forgot. Victim was Paul. After the ambulance had left, I told both the guys that regardless of the outcome, they had done everything humanly possible, including putting themselves in danger - and that they could feel good about that. I left to head home.
When I got to Lake Lure, the helicopter was in the grass, and the rotors were not turning. I didn't know what to think about that. Then I saw an IV line running to Paul and they loaded him on the helicopter. I got a glimpse of his face and it appeared that his skin color was better. One hour and fifteen minutes after the pin, the helicopter lifted off for Mission Hospital in Asheville. He had a weak pulse but was still not breathing on his own.
I am relaying this story to you guys for two reasons. One, this was a tramatic experience for me. Not to mention the other guys. Two, I have just had may taste this year of Class V paddling. I know many of you prefer it. If you are going to paddle class V water, your chances of being involved in something like this is probably close to 100%. A drowning victim only gets one chance. And if the effort is not well coordinated and fortified by proper gear and training, the effectiveness declines sharply. If Paul's buddies were not wearing rescue vests, he would still be pinned in the sieve. Without the vest, they could not have reached the boat, tied onto it, and pulled and pushed at it. Though it seemed ineffective, their efforts freed the boat. Never forget that the crushing force of the water pinning a boat is also trying to push it out. Perhaps their efforts caused the boat to sink a little further into the wedge and when the boat collapsed, it came out. Without a knife, we could not have cut the rope and removed Pauls drytop and gear. A larger group and more ropes may have saved some time.
Looking back on it, I can count the mistakes I made, things I should have done differently. Procedures that I should have organized more effectively. I'll never forget seeing Pauls boat slip casually, non-violently into a death trap, or how mercilessly and effortlessly the river took a victim. I'll not forget his buddies wretching after each rescue breath. I'll not forget feeling and hearing the water in the victims lungs gurgle as I adminstrered rescue breaths. Be prepared. Be prepared in training, in gear and for how ugly it is. As of this morning, I don't know the outcome. I pray that Paul recovers fully. But I fear the passage of time when he had no pulse. If he recovers but went too long without oxygen, I fear we may have done him a disservice. Hang in there, Paul.Kayaker readied for final journey by Jordan Schrader,
published January 11, 2007 12:15 am
ASHEVILLE - Paul McKinney won't survive the kayak accident that pinned him under the rushing waters of the Rocky Broad River, family and friends say. The Mars Hill husband and father of a 3-year-old son left Mission Hospitals and on Wednesday was at CarePartners Hospice and Palliative Care. "Currently, we are taking all measures possible to support and comfort him until he is ready for his next journey," his wife wrote in a message board on the Web site BoaterTalk, drawing sorrowful responses from dozens of paddlers.
Boaters took quick action to rescue McKinney on Jan. 1 when his kayak tipped and wedged between two boulders on a rapid near Chimney Rock, emergency responders said. The rapid's name of Walker Falls may have stuck because most travelers choose to portage it, wary of the most dangerous part of the lower Rocky Broad, said Will Hanna, a former American Whitewater Streamkeeper for the river. But McKinney, 33, had an adventurous streak to match his fiery red hair, said Tom McNinch, who came from Washington to be with his friend in his last moments. He "couldn't sit still. I'd come over and want to watch football, and he'd say, 'No, we're going on a hike,'" McNinch said.
McKinney darted from one job or hobby to another, with stints as an emergency veterinarian and glass blower. He did things on the spur of the moment, like invite McNinch on a monthlong trip to the West Coast and Las Vegas. "He might have had $200 in his pocket, but he said, 'We'll go until that runs out,'" his friend said. McKinney and his wife, Barbie, married in a Las Vegas chapel, he said. They later moved to Western North Carolina. Their 10th wedding anniversary is in March, his wife wrote online. She declined to be interviewed.
On New Year's Day, McKinney's two companions were prepared for trouble with rescue vests and ropes, according to a man who aided them in the rescue and described it in an online post. One lowered the other down on a rope to where only a foot of the kayak's stern poked out of the water, Charles Parrish wrote. They managed to work the boat free and then, with Parrish's help, wrestle it to shore. When emergency responders arrived, Chimney Rock Fire Chief Buck Meliski said, McKinney's friends had performed CPR but with no luck in restarting his breathing. He had stayed underwater for as long as 15 minutes by Meliski's estimate andperhaps half that long by the rescuer's account. It was too long.
Contact Jordan Schrader via e-mail at email@example.com