Accident Database

Report ID# 253

  • Equipment Trap
  • Head Injury / Concussion
  • Inexperience

Accident Description

On August 7, 1984 four boys in two small rafts attempted to paddle a section of the Gauley above Summersville Dam. This is a straightforeward Class III run on a wide, powerful river. During the trip the two boats became separated. When the second boat failed to appear at Curtin Bridge the authorities were called. This was late in the afternoon, and the boys were located at dusk, stranded on a midstream boulder.

Firefighter James Bennett, 34, was part of a group of volunteer firefighters on the scene. By now it was completely dark, and they had no way to light the scene. Attaching a rope to his waist "for safety", he attempted to wade out to the boys. His belayers were told to hold onto the rope at all costs, and this is what they did. So one saw what happened, but he probably slipped and fell. Then the rope held him under water until he drowned. The two men holding the rope tried to pull him in, but they were not quick enough. There are unconfirmed reports that somewhere in this process he hit his head.

After Firefighter Bennett's death guides from Wildwater Unlimited in Thurmond were called. They strung a tag line across the river and rescued the boys at first light.

1) Safety lines are not safe for swiftwater rescues unless attached to a quick-release harness. Because safety lines are commonly used in vertical rescue many firefighters with this background bring this skill to the river with tragic results. Each year several firefighters lose their lives because of this mistake.

2) Night rescues without adequate illumination are very dangerous because no one can see what's happening. The Wildwater Unlimited guides wisely waited until first light to bring the boys in.

3) It's clear that the boys were not experienced whitewater paddlers. In rivers of this difficulty it would not have been difficult to re-enter the river and swim to shore. This, of course, assumes that life vests are being used used. The pair could have been encouraged to do this before it got dark.

Join AW and support river stewardship nationwide!