Accident Database

Report ID# 276

  • Flush Drowning
  • Hypothermia
  • Cold Water
  • Inadequate Equipment
  • Inexperience
  • High Water
  • One Boat Trip

Accident Description


Shenandoah "Staircase" near Harper's Ferry, WV: March 26, 1993

DESCRIPTION: The Shenandoah Staircase and the section of the Potomac below the confluence is a popular Class I-II summer run for East Coast paddlers. But in 1993 a record snowmelt brought the Potomac river to almost 15 feet, a foot below flood stage and well above the normal running levels of 2-4 feet. The party, consisting of three local men and a woman in an 11 foot raft, had been rafting together for five years. They were equipped with life vests and helmets, but no wetsuits or drysuits. They were drawn to the river by the high water but quickly got more trouble than they anticipated.

Putting in at Millville in late afternoon, the group ran the first five miles without incident. Somewhere in the Staircase they hit a huge wave and flipped. The raft and four swimmers were flushed downstream into the Potomac with incredible speed and became separated. Two of the group managed to reach the shore. David Benjamin, clung to the raft and to his friend, Craig Gibson, 21, as they continued to flush downriver. Local rescue squads went into action but found the pair moving faster than they could get their equipment into position. A State Police helicopter pilot located the raft in the gathering dusk. He illuminated the scene with his lights and attempted to pick them up in a basket He then used the downdraft from his rotor blades to push the raft to shore to shore. CPR was started on Gibson, but resuscitation attempts were unsuccessful. The others three men were transported to the hospital and treated for hypothermia.

SOURCE: Kathy Streletzly; The Frederick Post; The Cecil County Whig

ANALYSIS: Although the "Staircase" is not difficult, both the Shenandoah and the Potomac are huge rivers, making rescue difficult at high water. In a small raft with no backup, a one-boat party was very vulnerable in the event of a mishap. The icy water, combined with the absence of protective gear, meant that the party had very little time to reach safety before hypothermia set in and they lost the strength to do so. For one person, unfortunately, it was too late.

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