Accident Database

Report ID# 27512

  • Caught in a Natural Hydraulic
  • Physical Trauma
  • Cold Water

Accident Description

Background: I have paddled whitewater over 50 years and the Tellico several hundred times. We were with a strong group, dressed appropriately paddling at a high level. I usually paddle an OC1, but this was my 6th day to paddle so I took an Expedition Bakraft, weighing 10.5 pounds that I have paddled on class III previously. 

Accident: We put on at Bridge Rapid, all went well through the hardest rapid Bounce Off Boulder. I boofed over a 2-foot ledge on river left and the stern filled with water and the boat was pulled back into the hydraulic. Bill accidentally hit me, knocking me free briefly but the outflow was about 304 feet that day and I was sucked back into the hydraulic where I surfed then flipped.

The next rapid had a narrow channel on the left that could have wood, a large rock in the center that was covered that day, and a channel on the right that routinely pins boats. I decided to stand sideways in some slightly slack water. I got up but lost my footing when throwing the paddle to shore. I had to quickly choose the route to swim and chose to go over the middle rock. There is a V-shaped siphon I had not known about as I went over on my back in the WW swim position it sucked my right leg down, my foot pinned, dislocated, then as I was flushed from the pin my right leg hit a slab of rock that broke my tibia and fibula. It felt like the bone went through the skin. I flipped on my stomach and swam to the first eddy on river right where the road is above. I swam hard and fast before I passed out or worse. The only eddy was 2 1/2 feet by 3 feet at the foot of 20 plus vertical feet.

There were tourists watching us paddle, so I called for help immediately and asked them to call 911. Sally could hear me, but not see me behind a hug upstream boulder. I clung to a piece of rock, but my foot and broken ankle were out in the strong current because the eddy was so small. I have broken the other ankle, but this pain was so much worse, especially with the foot dislocation and inability to have room to stabilize it. I was dressed in layers of wool and a dry suit but knew that hypothermia would be my biggest enemy.

When Sally got to me she sat on the small rock I had clung to and pulled my upper torso onto her for warmth and safety. We still could not get the injured leg out of the current. Bill retrieved the raft and it was lowered to try to get my leg out of the water. Eventually, we were able to use a bow rope, paddle, and life jacket as makeshift stabilizers. Over 1 1/2 to 2 hours passed before the rescue squad/EMS arrived. The people up on the road did not realize that there was no cell phone signal along the river. I let myself scream with the pain. I have low blood pressure and I became hypothermic so screaming served many purposes. 

When rescue arrived they had to do the extrication up the vertical 20 feet with a SKED. I was given Ketamine for the pain. It causes hallucinations, so the rest of the rescue I learned about from Sally and Bill and the pictures Sally took. I was hypothermic for 3 days requiring hospitalization.

Thank you, Sally, Bill, other boaters up top, rescue and EMS. Experience isn't always enough. I am still boating but have lowered the level of difficulty and raised the temperature at which I will paddle, so I can paddle into my 90s like the woman who introduced me to this sport.


Sally's Version:

Bill, Wendy and I put in at the bridge and proceeded down the river. The level was on the high side, but certainly doable for the three of us, all of whom are experienced paddlers and have paddled this section of the Tellico numerous times. All went well until the three of us were below Bounce-off-Boulder when I saw Wendy in a hole on river left. Bill bumped her as he went through and Wendy turned over and fell out of her boat.  The boat went downstream and Wendy managed to get into some slack water midstream. She was able to stand up in knee-high water, but lost her balance and was swept downstream.  I had eddied out to assist her, but when she went downstream, I jumped back in my boat and went after her.

I could hear Wendy screaming but could not see her as she was in an eddy behind a large rock on river right. I eddied out as close as I could to her and could tell immediately that her leg or foot was broken as it was bent at an odd angle. She was in a small eddy, and in the water. There were some people on the road above us, but the bank was very steep and rocky. Wendy and I both yelled for them to call 911, and one of their group left to drive back into town to get help.

In the meantime, I knew I had to get her out of the water. It was cold that day, and while we were all dressed appropriately for the weather, no one was dressed for sitting for a prolonged period in the water. I  managed to get into a position where I was mostly out of the water and pulled Wendy onto my lap where she was mostly out of the water, but I could not get her lower extremities out of the water, mainly due to her extreme pain.  There was no way we could move her downstream or upstream and no way we could get her up the bank without a lot of help due to the steepness of the bank.

When Bill managed to get down to us, he and I tried to immobilize Wendy’s leg, but we didn’t have anything to bind her leg with other than my PFD, which was not satisfactory.  The people who were on the road had managed to get help on the way, and after what seemed an eternity but in reality wasn’t much more than an hour or less, the EMT’s were there. Once they were there,  they worked with Bill and I,  as space was limited where we were on the river.  I was very impressed with the speed and professionalism the EMT’s showed while the extraction took place.

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