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Accident Description


From Steve Ruth, via Boatertalk

My phone rang at 10 pm tonight, it was the Elkhorn City fire chief. "Steve, there's a couple of boys hanging on a tree in the middle of the river downstream of Ratliff's Hole, the takeout for the Russell Fork River near Elkhorn City. We need a kayaker to get to them." I live in Elkhorn City and am involved with a number of of city projects. It's a small place and the EC rescue folk know me fairly well. One of them saw the situation and thought the only way to get to them was by kayak. So they called me, probably as a last resort!

Now if you've run that nice little Rat Hole to EC section, you're probably thinking 'hanging on a tree in the middle of the river? that don't sound right?'. Well you're right...unless you've seen that section at 6,000cfs, which is about what it was running this evening. Well, what can a guy do? The boat was still loaded from today's Grassy run, I pulled on my drysuit and grabbed my pfd and sprayskirt and ventured up the road to find about 7 fire trucks & rescue vehicles blocking the road at Pool Point. The fire chief flagged me and said they're just downstream of the train bridge I could head over the hill there. Well, that kind of includes a 50 foot cliff to get to the river, so I said I'd float down from Rat Hole.

I ventured on and there were 6 or 7 more rescue vehicles down there with at least two aluminum type overgrown motorized john boats ready to launch into the river. I got the guys attention and suggested maybe taking those boats downstream beyond the bridge was a bad idea. But, if they stayed on extreme river right, maybe they wouldn't die...IF they got to the right spot on river right where they could tie up. They were gung-ho for that and even more gung-ho to tie a rope to my boat. No thanks I told them, I'd just follow them downstream to a place we could get a visual and assess the situation.

It all went beautifully except one small detail. The boys weren't in a tree just downstream of the bridge, which we were lead to believe. They were ACTUALLY in a tree downstream of Meatgrinder, which is about 1/8 mile downstream of the train bridge. I wasn't going to paddle down there in the dark at 6k and when the johnboat rescue team heard that, they figured they wouldn't either. We hiked downstream to find 5 or 6 rescue folk on the side of the river shining spotlights on the poor kids in the tree. One guy had managed, hanging onto trees in the moving water, to get a rope (tied up mind you) to within 30 feet of the boys.

I was the only person wearing ANY type of dry (or wet) gear. So here's me and 6 guys who were supposed to know what to do standing there looking at the boys in the tree. By this time, they'd been there over 2 hours and were just about naked (the river had stripped them to their underwear), miserable and near shock. Well, the idea of a kayak getting to them wasn't necessarily a bad idea...but the water was really moving by them and there were trees all around. There really wasn't any way to safely paddle to them and do anything at all. So I asked the guy who'd gotten the rope sort of close how deep it was there. He said it was chest deep where the rope was tied off.

I had them attach a rope to my pfd and ventured into the flow just to get a feel of what we were dealing with. My mind is boggled that the guy got the rope to the spot he did. The river was pushing me hard and it was all I could do to keep my footing. I got to the end of the rope, but it was too deep...and swift, to be able to throw anything on to where the boys were.

I retreated to the bank and we talked about it. The john boat guys wanted to try to get their boat to that place and probably would have tried it if I hadn't been there. It took 5 or 10 minutes of talking to get them to give up on that idea. Thankfully, the county emergency management director had contacted the corp as soon as the call came in to turn off the dam release. After standing looking at the boys in the tree for a half an hour or more, the river started dropping. Not a lot, but about 8" inches. After 3 attempts, enough time for the river to drop another 6-8", I was able to take a harness (attached to a rope) to the base of the tree the boys were in. I managed this by basically walking as far as I could, then lunging from tree to tree, hanging on to anything I could grab. I'd guess it took 10 minutes to cross about 50 feet of up to chest deep flowing water on the last attempt.

The boys were in pretty pitiful shape at this point, I handed the harness to the boy nearest the flow and explained how to slip it over his head and under his arms, then talked him out of the tree. The bank crew knew to pull the harness rope when I gave a blast on my whistle. All good. So then it's me and the second boy. There wasn't any way for the guys to get the harness back, so I had to talk the kid out of the tree, convince him that I was going to hang on to him while they pulled us both in. I had him lay back on me and locked my arms under his armpits and across his chest. When the crew saw us in position, they pulled us in.

Now that I'm sitting here, I'm pretty astonished that nobody died. There was just no way to get to them, they were in a terrible spot, too many trees around to throw ropes to them. If the river hadn't dropped...probably down to 4000k...they'd still be in that damned tree, unless they'd given out. I'm not sure how much longer they could have hung on. When I say tree, I should say very large bush. Maybe 4" across at the base. Your typical scrubby kinda baby sycamore. The scary part is how clueless everyone involved, including me, was. The rescuers just didn't fathom the force of the flow, the coldness of the water (until they tried wading in), or the danger of ropes tied to boats, trees, etc. While I haven't had a swiftwater rescue course, I am very glad for the knowledge I'd absorbed over the years from people way smarter than me.

I'd love to grab some experts and show them the situation to see if there wasn't something we jIust didn't think of that would have made things easier. First obvious thing is everyone having the proper dry gear to be able to spend time in 50ish degree water. At least they all had pfd's. Rescue missions beat the hell out of recovery missions. Be safe out there. The various rescue squads on the scene were very determined to resolve the situation. I didn't mean to suggest it was a total three stooges scene. These folks are determined to rescue people in trouble and many are willing to put themselves in harm's way to succeed. It's damn frustrating when you can look right at people in trouble but can't find a solution.

Later I learned that the two boys, ages 18-21,found an old bass boat in town and had been floating around in it on Sunday. they didn’t realize that the river was 10 or so times higher than they'd been floating on in town a couple days before. No drugs or alcohol were involved...just youthful exuberance and daring. The quote of the night was one of the kids, clinging to the tree looked at me and said, "Don't you live next door to my mom?...this is the stupidest thing I ever did!" 

I'm determined at this point to get myself certified (as opposed to certifiable which I've pretty much succeeded at) and to help the locals get the proper gear and training for such situations. It's easy when you're very familiar with a particular environment to toss off on people who have NEVER experienced that environment. Those guys followed the suggestions and instructions I gave and with a little education, would know exactly what and what not to do the next time.