Accident Database

Report ID# 3040

  • Swim into Strainer
  • Does not Apply
  • Cold Water

Accident Description

Mercer Oast, a Greensboro paddler, and active member of the Smith River Valley Canoe Club, was the drowning victim in Goshen Pass today. He was paddling with several SRVCC members and some Coastals members when it happened.

I was on the river yesterday, Sunday, March 29th about an hour ahead of the group in question. After paddling we were headed up through the Pass by car. At Devil's Kitchen we saw numerous boats up on boulders and rescue vehicles blocking one lane of the road. Mercer Oast of Greensboro, NC had drowned. He was a member of the CCC but their listserve has so far been quiet about it. My best guess is they are working on an information release.

The rescue efforts of the surrounding corps of boaters were heroic and, from what I could see from the road, being attempted by people who know what they are doing. The local rescue squad was largely confined to the bank of the river but I've heard they may have played a part in finally pulling Mercer's body free. I identified myself via radio to the rescue squad's incident commander as a swiftwater rescue instructor. My request to help was denied. In fairness, by that point enough time had gone by that this was a body recovery, not a rescue.

I have pasted below comments from a friend of mine who was in the group just upstream. I consider Devil's Kitchen to be on the low end of class IV. The water level was 2.9 feet USGS, 700 cfs which is quite ordinary. Air temps were mild, around sixty. The water was chilly but not bone-numbing. The remains of a large tree are still stuck in the rapid up against a large boulder which is somewhat undercut.

The exact circumstances are yet to be reported first-hand but my understanding is he flipped above this hazard and was swept between the tree and the boulder. Notice of this tree has been a part of the AW river database for a long time.

Ken Dubel This from a friend who was on the scene and has given me permission to quote: "Here is my perspective on what happened. We were approaching the Kitchen when we heard a whistle blow and saw folks scrambling around on the big undercut boulder at the top on right of center. Two of my group were running the right line and caught the eddy above the initial drop. I was running the standard left to center line. We realized things were pretty serious when we saw a guy roped-in standing on the stump above a pinned kayak (turned out this was not the victim's boat but a rescuer's).

I caught a center eddy across from the rock and opted to stay in my boat as lots of folks were climbing out to help, and I wanted to make sure someone was in their boat in case rescuers fell in or the victim flushed. They were able to pull the boat up onto the rock and focus on the victim. I saw a guy working on the victim and caught glimpses of either his helmet or lifejacket. He clipped a rope into his pfd and they tried unsuccessfully to pull him up onto the rock. They then threw another rope to a boater on a rock upstream, and tried pulling in that direction. It eventually took maybe 6 or 7 ropes and lots of folks onshore and on rocks upstream to pull him out (everything was connected to that initial rope). One of the rescuers told me there was so much resistance he thought at first they were pulling out the stump.

It took awhile to get everyone to shore and gather up all the ropes and gear. Mercer's boat was guided down to the picnic area. Most paddlers either took out at the Kitchen or at the picnic area. There was a lot of good help by many folks - especially those on the ropes, and those in their boats in that eddy above the rock - I'm leaving out names, but if you paddle the Pass, you know them. Despite their efforts, this was just a worst case scenario. That rock is not easy to get to or work around with no real options for a Z-drag, and it took some time to even get to the victim. The Pass was running around 700 cfs on the current USGS scale (not sure what the bridge gauge was). At that level the stump is mostly covered and is not obvious.

My understanding is that Mercer dropped into the eddy just upstream and to the right of the rock (standard for the river right line), flipped, missed his roll twice, and washed into the stump in his boat upside down. Sorry if this all sounds impersonal; just want to provide some details to folks. Paddlers in his group were understandably shaken afterwards. My thoughts and prayers go out to them, and other of Mercer's friends, and especially his family." Ken, Thank you for this forum to post the events of this tragedy.

I was personally involved and have been struggling all day with the decision to post details. As traumatic as it was for us there, it can be nothing compared to what his family and friends must be going through. I was with Mercer when the accident happened and will try to relay the events as best I can. But first, I wish to extend my deepest sympathies to Mercer's family and friends. I do not wish to appear insensitive to those close to Mercer, but I feel it is important to share the details, to know that everything possible was done to try to save Mercer and to let other boaters know of this particular danger spot.

The incident happened at the very first ledge on the river right route of Devil's Kitchen rapid. From what I was told, Mercer flipped in the hole at the bottom of the drop and after a couple of failed attempts to roll, exited his boat. He and his boat went left of the large boulder below the ledge. John Van Luik witnessed Mercer's swim and not seeing him assumed he was flushed downstream. The lower part of the rapid is not visible from this location, so John headed on downstream to try to retrieve a swimmer.

After I came through the top drop, I eddied out and saw Mercer's boat pinned against the tree stump to the left of the boulder. It did not appear that anyone was still in the boat and I asked around for confirmation from other boaters who said that there was no one in the boat. The next boater through the top drop was Mercer's friend Jeff, who also flipped in the hole and who also came out of his boat after a couple of roll attempts. Jeff's boat went left of the boulder and hung up on top of Mercer's boat. Jeff swam to the right side of the boulder. From there, he was able to climb up on top of the boulder and crossed to the other side. It wasn't until then that he saw Mercer trapped below water in the sieve created by the large tree stump wedged into the undercut edge of the boulder.

Any rescue attempt from the water was next to impossible, so I paddled over to the boulder and climbed up on top to assist Jeff. John Hall was also able to get to the boulder with us to help. We were able to climb down on the other side on top of the tree stump. Mercer was completely below water, feet first in the sieve with only the top of his helmet visible. By this time, probably 10 to 15 minutes had already elapsed. We were able to grab hold of Mercer's PFD, but with two of us pulling as hard as we could, we could not budge him. John tied off Mercer's PFD with a throw rope and we futilely continued to try to extract him, but realized it was too late.

By this time other boaters had arrived and positioned themselves on upstream boulders to help with retrieval. The Fire and Rescue squad arrived shortly thereafter. A set of throw ropes were extended to the boaters on the upstream boulders and from there to the F&R team on the river bank. After about 30 minutes or more to set up the throw ropes and with considerable manpower, they were able to pull Mercer from the sieve. I do not feel that anything could have been done to save Mercer, even if rescue assistance had been immediate. Ironically, John Van Luik and I had looked at this rapid from the road the day before and John had made the comment about the tree stump still being there. I did not see what he was talking about at the time, but was to find out the very next day.

I wish to thank those boaters who assisted with the retrieval, in particular a group of "creek boaters" with obvious rescue expertise. Sorry I don't know names.

You may have already gotten reports of the drowning yesterday (3/29/09) on the "Goshen Pass" section of the Maury River, Rockbridge County, VA. I was not there when the accident actually happened - I arrived when it was a body recovery but I will give my account since I was there and have a very intimate knowledge of the river there. If I can help with any other details please let me know.

My account: My group was well behind the victim's group. My wife and I were on the river, but stopped to wait for some friends who were about 10 minutes behind us. The rest of our group that had already been with us went ahead a bit while we waited. Emergency vehicles started coming by from upstream. The friends behind us caught up and told us the fire trucks and rescue squad was going to an incident downstream at Devil's Kitchen rapid. We proceeded on.

When we got to Devil's Kitchen (probably ~30 minutes after the incident occurred) it was the usual rescue/recovery of 9+ emergency vehicles and onlookers high up on the bank. The rescue workers stayed on shore and let the boaters already on the scene do their work.

The victim, Mercer Oast from NC had apprently swam at the very top of the rapid. He then apprently swam to the left of a large house-sized rock called House Rock. There has been a very large (the size of a mature oak tree) tree with root ball stuck there for a few years. He apparently lodged in/under this tree. The tree is barely, but almost entirely below water at this level. The tree is wedged against the upper left side of the rock (the rock is not really very "undercut" as one report said). Some boaters had cut some of this tree out a year (?) ago, but at least 12-15+ feet or large tree remains there.

When we got there some boaters were on top of House Rock and on another rock immediately above House. Someone had clipped into the victim's PFD already and they were setting up a z-drag type setup to pull his body free of the wood. My friends Sid Crocker and Trafford McCrae and I were waved over to an upstream rock to try to set up an anchor there. We didn't have much to anchor to. We tried a small sycamore then tried to anchor by wrapping my rope around the entire 10' diameter rock we were standing on, but the rock was too rounded and it wouldn't have held. The rescue workers on shore set up an anchor there and threw the rope to me, allowing the z-draggers to anchor off the shore anchor (about 50' away upstream). Once set up, Mr. Oast came free by a pull straight upstream. He was then "pendulumed" to the river-right bank and carried out.

The level was 700 cfs. Sunny, 60's and windy. There was a higher than normal number of boaters in the Pass that day since it was a beautiful day and a Sunday. Mr. Oast reportedly swam above the tree but it was the wood that served to trap him underwater (his body was not visible when I arrived ~30 mins later).

Gordon Dalton AW "StreamKeeper" for Goshen Pass.

On March 29th Mercer and I met 2 other friends to car pool and run the Maury river. Mercer had run the river before (and have even told his wife that there was a bad undercut on the river). We then met 7 other guys (4 of whom knew mercer well) who knew the river. Mercer had been on the river at least once if not twice before. One of the other guys in our original group of 4 had run it once before, about 15 years ago. We checked the level on the bridge gauge and the river was running about 700 cfs, which we were told was a good first timers level.

We ran down for the first 45 minutes of the run in nice class II/III water. We got instruction about a wave train and to avoid the middle due to the possibilty of some piton rocks. We got a little spread out here and then came to Devil's Kitchen. All but one of the experienced paddlers had gone through by the time the four less experienced of the group got to "house rock". Even amoung the four of us, we had spread out a little to give space for the first small pour over/ledge.

{C} {C}

{C}Mercer went through the drop above the sieve with another person, Will. The other boater got to the right of House Rock and into an eddy. When he didn't see Mercer, he came back to the top of the rapid and saw Mercer's boat pushed up against the undercut (the right wall of the seive).  Will was then able to paddle over the sieve and get his hands on Mercer's boat and lift it up partially. One of Mercer's arm or legs was hung in the boat and fell out when he did this. Will was not able to get to Mercer or the boat out and was swept out of the rapid by the current. I saw Mercer go over the river left side of this and flip. The current was carrying him to the left of "house rock". I saw him try to roll 3 times and then come out of his boat. I said to one of my friends "looks like mercer is out of his boat" with a sort of chuckle.

As I came down to the ledge/pour over, I could see his boat pushed up against the house rock and being held there by the current. There were a couple of other members of our group in the river right eddy. I asked them if they knew where mercer was and neither of them knew. I saw that the majority of the flow through the ledge/pour over was on river left so I folowed mercer's line. There was a squirrely, small hole here that flipped me as well. I was somewhat panicked at this point, so after 3 quick and ineffectual attempts at rolling, I came out as well. Some one on the bank yelled "let go of your boat and swim to the right of the rock!"

I did this and was able to find a small rock to climb onto. From here I again asked people if they had seen mercer, which no one had. I was able to climb onto the top of the large "house rock". I looked around down river to see if I could find mercer and others in our group. I then looked over the side of the rock to where his and my boats were pinned. His boat flushed off and I could see the top of his helmet about 6" underwater, not moving. I then started yelling and blowing my whistle for people to come onto the rock, that I had found him, as well as getting someone to go up to the road and call 911. Two of the experienced paddlers from our group were able to traverse the rocks and get to where I was and were then able to get onto the log (just barely underwater) that forces water into the undercut. First one guy tried to pull him out by his life jacket and then both together without any success. By this time, there were probably 25 boaters on the scene. Some had joined us on "house rock" and some got on the upstream rocks that formed the pour over. The upstream boaters with the people on the log, were able to put a rope onto him to try and pull him out from there. This also was unsuccessful. Finally, one of the guys who had shown up on the rock directed the upstream people to tie 2 ropes together and get these to shore. From there, it was linked into a pulley and with 5 guys pulling they were able to pull him free. It was estimated that it took 30 minutes total to get him out. He was declared dead on the scene.

Jeffrey Hatcher


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