Published: September 28, 2009
Authorities: Kayaker survives near-drowning
By Amelia A. Pridemore Register-Herald Reporter
A kayaker originally reported drowned was pulled from the New River Monday afternoon — alive. Around 4 p.m. Monday, a female kayaker was originally reported drowned on the New River, said Stephen M. Cruikshank, Fayette County emergency services director. This occurred in the Cotton Hill area, below the Hawk’s Nest dam and near Gauley Bridge. Gauley Bridge firefighters were called for a possible water rescue, said Meredith Gray, public information officer for the Ansted and Fayetteville fire departments. When more details became available, the county’s swiftwater and rope rescue teams were also called. CSX shut down nearby railways.
Fellow kayakers pulled the adult woman from the water, Gray said. The woman was unconscious. She had been kayaking with a small group, and her kayak had apparently overturned near the Cotton Hill Bridge. Two kayakers immediately began CPR, and others called for help. Once emergency personnel arrived, the kayaker was taken three miles by a CSX high-rail truck, then to an awaiting Jan-Care ambulance, Gray said. A Health Net helicopter then landed on the Cotton Hill Bridge, and the woman was taken to a Charleston hospital. W.Va. 16 traffic was closed to all traffic for about 20 minutes. The kayaker communicated with responders while on the CSX vehicle, Gray said. Cruikshank said the woman’s condition was unknown Monday night. She was in intensive care several days with broken ribs and a punctured lung caused by the 15 or 20 minutes of CPR which revived her.
The crew visited Gisela today and she asked for the events to be posted here. We learned that the Dries, lower part of the New, was barely running and chose that over the more burley New at 7.5 feet. When we got there, it was looking a little low, but we put on anyways. Everything was pretty much class 3. Above mile long rapids a ways, we stopped at a pretty small, non consequential play wave. Gisela entered the wave and flipped. She tried to roll 3 times in a super small wave train. After the second attempt, 2 paddlers started to chase her down. After the 3rd attempt, she pulled her skirt. She stayed in the middle of the river with her boat. We attempted to get the boat to the side but it was pretty heavy. Gisela then went to grab my stern and I gave a few paddles to shore and looked back to see she had let go. She seemed really exhausted at this point. We passed a few large eddies that she did not try to swim to. Not sure if exhaustion was the reason. At this time, we went into a small benign looking ledge hole 2-3 feet high. 3 paddlers had already swept through, one was still above. The hole was towards the center right of the river. Gisela started to get recirculated.
The one paddler above immediately got out a throw bag but she was unable to grab it. We tried to paddle into the flush out point, one paddler made it within 2 feet of her, but she was already unconscious and he couldnt grab her. Another paddler left his boat, ran the shore, entered the water above, and swam into the hole. There was no time to rope him up. In the hole he grabbed Gisela and pushed her out. He got recirced a few times and then was able to get out himself. The paddler and swimmer then grabbed Gisela downstream and got her to the side. Time under water and unconscious was close to 3-4 minutes.
On a boulder where we ended up Gisela was pretty blue and there was no pulse. CPR began immediately. 2 paddlers then continued downstream as fast as they could to get help. At that point, there was no easy exit, we were in a roadless canyon. 15-20 minutes of cpr later, we felt a slight pulse and an extremely shallow breathing, color had returned. Rescue breaths continued for the next 10 minutes to assist breathing. Gisela slowly gained consciousness but for 10 minutes was incoherent. After that, she was able to communicate her name, and a pain in her chest from the ribs I broke doing cpr. BP was 110 when she was coherent, and then would drop to 84 when she became subdued and slipped to near unconscious, then she would come back to when she heard the whistle we kept blowing. No memory of even kayaking. All she knew was her name, born in Germany, she has 4 kids, and Chris.
Rescue took about 1.5 hours to get to us using the railroad track. Rescue was pretty unsophiscated / primitive, but give the firefighters credit, while they waited for the rail high truck to get there, Gauley bridge and Smithers volunteer firefighters walked the 2-3 miles in on the tracks. They then descended to use through the briars and over large boulders to help get Gisela to the railroad tracks. People showed up on 4 wheelers, dirt bikes, walking, whatever they could. High school kids stood grabbing trees with one hand while pulling people up with their other hand, all while getting torn up by the thorns. Gisela still at this point was really only able to communicate a pain in her chest, medics started an IV, and then they were gone.
Rescue things learned: Everyone needs a throw bag as after one attempt it took too long to recoil. A longer throw rope might have helped too since it was a wide river at that point. A rescue vest or an added quick release harness with the metal ring is great to have as it would have aided towing her boat to shore without endangering ourselves. At least a flip line so we could have clipped it to Gisela when we saw she wasn’t swimming well. A river knife was used to cut the dry top to give better circulation, and a whistle was used to signal. Also, even on small rapids, a “get the hell to shore” urgency should be used with swimmers, even with advanced paddlers, because you never know. A 100 percent dedication should be given to the swimmer getting to shore instead of worrying about gear. We became a little complacent because she was an experienced paddler and we just figured she knew to get to shore or call for help, and she chose to stay with her boat. I also think Gisela herself was complacent and did not have an urgency to get to shore.
Finally, I think every non expert should practice rolling as often as they can. Do it on the flat waters of the rivers until is it perfect from both sides, and you can do it while going through waves. Gisela tried on her third roll to roll up on a wave and couldn’t and didn’t get enough air, so she had to swim. Some intermediate to advanced people have a roll, but not always a great one. Yet they don’t practice, and sometimes often don’t roll for months due to their abilities on the easier rivers they are paddling.