April 13, 2018
Carnegie Hero Award nomination
Submitted/nominated by: Scott Patton
Nominees: Patrick N. McCarty, 28 and Eric Martin, 47
The rescued victims of the accident: Raecyne [pronounced “Ra-seen”] Bechtold and Arnetta Johnson
On June 26, 2017, two kayakers, Patrick McCarty and Eric Martin, put their lives at risk to rescue two women whose raft capsized in turbulent whitewater on the Youghiogheny River at Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania. The incident and rescue occurred during a period of unusually high water generated by several days of heavy rainfall. The rescue occurred just 200 yards above the approximately 20 foot high waterfall of the Youghiogheny River in Ohiopyle. The Falls are dangerous at “normal” river levels and being washed over the Falls during periods of high water is nearly always fatal. According to State Park records there have been several drownings when people have inadvertently fallen into the river during periods of high water and carried over the Falls by the current. Thus, in the case of this incident, had the victims and/or their rescuers been swept over the Falls, they would most likely have drowned.
Background of the area in which the accident and subsequent rescue occurred:
Ohiopyle State Park in Fayette County is Pennsylvania's largest state park and is one of the most frequently visited. The “main attraction” of the Park is the magnificent Ohiopyle Falls where the Youghiogheny River plunges over the equivalent height of a two-story building into very turbulent water. This is the waterfall that in 1754 ended George Washington’s quest to find a water route leading to the Forks of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers- present day Pittsburgh. Washington deemed the Youghiogheny to be unrunnable for successfully transporting freight-laden log rafts to Pittsburgh. The Youghiogheny River now is well known nationwide for its whitewater and recreational uses. Adventure seekers regularly travel here from all over the East to raft, kayak, canoe, swim and fish.
The Youghiogheny River within the park is comprised of three sections:
- The “Lower” Yough: This 7-mile whitewater section begins just downstream of the Ohiopyle Falls and is the most challenging whitewater in the park.
- The “Middle” Yough: This 8-mile section is upstream of Ohiopyle and is considered to be a “mild” section of the river. The Middle Yough is favored by novice paddlers and organizers of family “float trips” in rafts. This section ends about 600 yards upstream of Ohiopyle Falls where there is a large, well-marked and easily accessible take-out.
- The “Falls Area”: This section is about 400 yards in length and is in-between the Middle and Lower Yough paddling sections. This section starts at the pedestrian bridge where the raft in this incident was lodged and terminates at Ohiopyle Falls. Ohiopyle State Park boating regulations declare this section to be off-limits to the usual whitewater boating activities due to the danger posed by the Falls at the downstream end. IT IS IN THIS AREA WHERE THE RESCUE OCCURRED.
On Monday, June 26, 2017-
Raecyne Bechtold, 46, and Arnetta Johnson, 55, traveled to Ohiopyle State Park to go on a whitewater rafting outing. [I interviewed Ms. Bechtold and Ms. Johnson via telephone conference call on 11/10/2017.] They rented a raft, paddles and lifejackets from one of the river outfitters in Ohiopyle and received instructions on the basic procedures and safety rules of this activity.
The Youghiogheny River was unusually high that day due to recent rain storms. On a typical summer day the water level gauge reading at Ohiopyle is generally between 1.5 and 2.0 feet. On this day, however, it was close to 6 feet. River access rules established by Ohiopyle State Park dictate that the more aggressive Lower Yough is "closed" to rental rafts if the gauge registers 4 feet or above. The less challenging Middle Yough is, however, “open” for rental rafts up to a gauge reading of 6 feet.
So, Ms. Johnson and Ms. Bechtold paddled the 8 mile section of the Middle Yough.
The day of rafting was “fun” and without incident until the last rapid before the designated take-out. The roller coaster action of the waves in that rapid caused the raft to capsize, tossing both paddlers into the swift-moving river. The upside-down raft and the two women were quickly carried downstream by the current. Fortunately they were able to gain a hold on the safety rope around the outside perimeter of the raft. Ms. Bechtold then managed to climb up onto the capsized raft. Ms. Johnson remained in the water through the entire ordeal. From on top of the flipped raft Ms. Bechtold was able to grasp the strap of Ms. Johnson’s life jacket and was able to keep her from being swept away from the raft by the current. The two women were carried by the current past the take-out. About 100 yards further downstream they floated under the Route 381 highway bridge. They were in the clear view of many tourists as they were now floating into the dangerous “Falls Area” and toward the waterfall which was about 300 yards farther downstream. The women were frightened by their predicament, but didn’t realize how incredibly dangerous their situation had become- they had no idea that they were approaching a waterfall. At high water levels such as this, the likelihood of surviving being swept over the Falls is very poor.
Meanwhile, the upside-down raft floating under the Rt. 381 bridge and the two women clinging to it were seen by several onlookers. Multiple 911 calls were received by the Fayette County Emergency Dispatch. The 911 dispatcher immediately notified Ohiopyle State Park and the Ohiopyle-Stewart Volunteer Fire Department. The Park immediately dispatched an emergency response vehicle with two rangers to the scene and the Fire Department’s alarm siren was sounded to beckon any available volunteers to assist in the rescue.
A bike/pedestrian bridge, supported by several mid-stream piers, crosses the river just 200 feet downstream of the highway bridge. Fortunately, the raft washed up against one of those bridge piers and was held there by the push of the current. The raft was further kept in place there as both Ms. Bechtold from her position on the raft and Ms. Johnson, still in the water, had grasped the narrow upstream edge of the pier and held on. That kept the raft and the two women from continuing to float downstream. If the raft had missed that pier and continued past the pedestrian bridge, the raft and the two women would have gone over the Falls. Due to the high water and accompanying speed of the current that day, a free-float from the pedestrian bridge to the Falls would have taken only about one minute.
One of the on-the-scene witnesses was Ms. Dee Reddick, herself an experienced whitewater boater. [I interviewed Dee via telephone on 10/30/2017.] Ms. Reddick rushed out onto the pedestrian bridge to a point where she was directly above the pier on which the raft had pinned. Ms. Reddick shouted lifesaving instructions to the women in the water below her and used her words to strengthen and encourage them: “HOLD ON- DO NOT let go of that raft! DO NOT let go of the pier! You are doing great! Stay strong! Help is on the way! DO NOT LET GO- Help will be here SOON!” She repeated these and similar instructions and words of encouragement over and over and over. Other onlookers also began to shout directions to the victims; Ms. Reddick knew that some of their well-intentioned directives were incorrect and downright contrary to the resolution of the situation so she confidently took charge and shouted to the onlookers: “Folks! We need just ONE VOICE here! Please! I will handle this!” And to the two women clinging to the bridge pier: “YOU LADIES ARE DOING GREAT! JUST HOLD ON! DO NOT LET GO OF THE PIER- HELP WILL BE HERE SOON!”
Because the woman in the sixty-degree water would be tiring and would also be experiencing the effects of cold water, Ms. Reddick recognized that the situation was growing more tenuous by the minute and that time was of the essence, but she didn’t allow her anxiousness to show through in her words to the two women. She didn’t want them to panic. She just kept up a steady stream of reassurance that help was on the way and would arrive soon and that they were doing the right thing by just holding on to that bridge pier until help arrived. She never left her position on the bridge above the women and did not let up in her flow of words of encouragement and guidance until the two were aided in the water by the kayakers.
Patrick McCarty is the river operations manager of Laurel Highlands River Tours, one of the whitewater rafting outfitters in Ohiopyle. [I interviewed Patrick in person on 10/28/2017.] Pat is an expert kayaker, has been a whitewater guide since he was sixteen, and is also an emergency response instructor/trainer. His office happens to be within 300 yards of the emergency scene. Fortunately he was in his office at the time and he heard the fire station’s siren. Other employees in the building also heard the sirens and saw the flashing lights on the State Park’s emergency response vehicle. Pat overheard one of them loudly and excitedly exclaim, “Something is going on above the Falls”. Pat wasn’t sure of the specific nature of the situation, but in case a water-rescue might be needed he grabbed his helmet and lifejacket and ran toward the river to see if he could help. Within a minute or two he was at the river shore and immediately saw the raft pinned on the bridge pier with Ms. Bechtold on top of it. He immediately recognized that in consideration of the high water level and the short distance downstream to the Falls, that the situation was life-threatening and that only moments stood between a rescue and an impending drowning. Looking upstream to the Rt. 381 highway bridge he could see the Park’s vehicle with its emergency lights flashing and two rangers. He also could see Eric Martin there on the bridge. Eric was unloading a kayak from the roof of a stopped car. In Eric he saw a partner in the rescue and immediately ran the 100 feet up to the bridge to team with Eric.
Eric Martin is the owner of Wilderness Voyageurs, another whitewater rafting outfitter in Ohiopyle. [I interviewed Eric in person on 11/22/2017.] Like Patrick, he is an expert kayaker and has worked this river as a guide and operations manager his entire adult life. His company’s headquarters building is near the river and its management offices are on the second floor. Eric’s office has a small outdoor balcony which has a direct line-of-sight to the highway bridge. His attention was drawn to the river when he heard the fire station’s siren. He went out onto the deck and from there he was able to see the State Park vehicle and the two responding rangers standing outside the vehicle. He could also hear and see that the rangers’ attentions were focused toward the river. He shouted to the Rangers on the bridge to get their attention. “HEY! Do you need help?” The Rangers heard him and looked his way and shouted back, “YES!”. His reply was accompanied by vigorous “come on” arm motions. The responding Ranger’s expressive manner conveyed to Eric that a serious situation was in progress. From his experience and knowledge of the river, Eric knew that an on-river situation, downstream of the highway bridge at this high water level, could very well be life-threatening.
He grabbed his helmet and life jacket and ran from his office toward the scene, shouting along the way to his employees to grab kayaks and paddles and to follow him as quickly as they could. In about a minute he was on the highway bridge and he could see the pinned raft with one woman on the upside-down boat. It was Ms. Bechtold on top of the inverted raft that he could see but he couldn’t see Ms. Johnson- being in the water clinging to the far side of the raft and screened from view to those on the highway bridge. He knew that the situation demanded an immediate response. How long had the raft been there? How much longer could it stay there before breaking free and continuing to float toward the Falls? Eric concluded, as Patrick had, that there wasn’t time to investigate those answers. If there was to be a rescue it has to be initiated immediately. He knew that if the raft broke free of the pedestrian bridge pier, which could happen at any moment, there would be no possibility of a rescue by kayak and an infinitesimally small chance of a shoreline rope-throw rescue. He needed to initiate this rescue NOW. Looking to his left he saw Patrick running his way- He then knew that there would be TWO highly competent whitewater rescuers available- himself and Patrick.
Eric’s employees were approaching the bridge on the run with a kayak and related gear and would be there in moments. But coincidentally a random car just happened to be crossing the bridge toward Eric at that very moment - and it had a kayak on its roof. Eric didn’t hesitate- he held up his hands in a “stop” signal. The car stopped. Eric shouted, “This is an emergency- I need your boat!” Without waiting for confirmation he started to undo the boat’s hold-down straps. The driver was Dylan Isaacs- a competent kayaker himself. Dylan recognized Eric and didn’t question him for a moment. Instead he immediately pitched-in to help get the boat and paddling gear ready for Eric to use. Just as Eric took the kayak and related gear and rushed for the water, Patrick arrived on the bridge and Eric’s employees arrived with a second kayak and paddle. Patrick was then right behind Eric rushing to the river with that second kayak. They ran to the water’s edge. They DID NOT take the extra time to pull-on the spray skirts. [A spray skirt is a stretchy neoprene rubber piece of kayaking gear. The upper end of the spray skirt fits around the kayaker’s waist and the lower end attaches via an elastic band to a grooved rim on the kayak’s cockpit to keep out water. You step into a spray skirt and pull it up to your waist much like pulling on a very tight pair of pants. If a kayak would capsize without an affixed spray skirt it would immediately flood with water and become extremely heavy and cumbersome. But since it can take a minute or more to get into a sprayskirt and to get it affixed to the kayak rim, both Eric and Pat launched onto the river without taking that extra time.] How much longer could that woman hold onto that raft and bridge pier in the swift current? The rescuers realized that time was crucially critical. They also realized that if either of them capsized without an attached spray skirt that they would very likely, in a flooded kayak, be swept down-river and over the Falls themselves. With time of the essence, they entered the kayaks with their street clothes on, paddled into the swift current and made their way to the pinned raft- a distance of about 150 feet. The sprint across the water took only seconds. Eric arrived first and it was only then that he realized that there were two victims- the one they had seen on top of the capsized raft and the second woman who was in the water on the backside of the raft.
Eric approached the woman who was in the water (Johnson) and told her to grab the rope loop that was on the stern of his kayak and HOLD ON for all her worth. Instead, in panic, she grabbed the cockpit rim of the kayak and almost tipped it over. Also in her panic she tried to climb up onto the deck of the kayak. Eric shouted at her to NOT try to climb- to just hold on and he would tow her to safety. She was panicky but understood and complied. With the woman clinging to the side of his kayak, Eric paddled toward the right-hand shore where the two rangers and several river guides were rushing to assist. But Eric’s kayak, with Ms. Johnson clinging to its side, was being pushed by the current downstream of the shoreline helpers. They threw a rope line out in an effort to assist the kayaker and the clinging victim, but it fell short. Eric and Ms. Johnson were continuing to be carried downstream toward the Falls. Eric however spotted a flat rock ledge which protruded about 6 inches above the water. He was able to pull his kayak and Ms. Johnson into a calm spot- an eddy- on the downstream side of that rock ledge. That protruding ledge turned out to be a life-saver. The water’s force was split around the ledge and Eric was able to hold his position there in the calm water of the eddy. He prodded with his paddle and the water in the eddy was only about 3 feet deep. He told Ms. Johnson to get to her feet and to steady herself on the back side of the rock ledge while he exited the kayak. Once out of the kayak he slid it up onto the exposed ledge he then stood in the water next to Ms. Johnson, put his arm around her waist and steadied her. He and Ms. Johnson were now somewhat secure, but were still about 40 feet from the shore, and the current between the eddy and the shore was swift. He decided it was best to wait in that eddy for further help. While waiting in the eddy the victim was able to catch her breath and gather herself while Eric reassured her.
Patrick McCarty was right behind Eric Martin in arriving at the pinned raft. When the woman in the water let go of her grip on the bridge pier and grabbed onto Eric’s kayak, the raft, with Ms. Bechtold still perched on top, floated free from the pier and started downstream toward the Falls. Patrick used his kayak like a tug boat to push against the raft. This was a tricky maneuver- He had to push “up-river” from the downstream side of the raft because if he allowed it to get downstream of him it would pick up speed in the current and then be unstoppable. Pat paddled with all his strength, calling on his river guide experience to push the raft and its one occupant against the current but at an angle toward the right-hand side of the river. Slowly but surely he got the raft closer and closer to the shore. When Pat pushed the raft in close to the river bank, one of the shore-based rescuers stepped into the water and was able to grab the raft’s safety line and pull it and Ms. Bechtold to safety.
But Eric and Ms. Johnson were still out in the eddy about 40 feet from shore. For the moment they were safe in their position in the eddy behind the ledge but with Ms. Johnson holding onto the side of his kayak he would not be able to safely paddle across the current to get to the right-hand shore. Seeing that, Pat headed back out into the river. Pat paddled out into the current and then maneuvered into the calm area of the eddy, joining Eric and Ms. Johnson there. Like Eric had before him, he got out of his kayak and parked it up on the protruding rock ledge. From the calm water of the eddy behind that ledge to the right-hand shore the current was threateningly swift but the water was only about 30 inches deep. Together Pat and Eric could stand, though somewhat unsteadily, on the solid rock bottom of the river. With one on each side of the victim, Eric and Pat planned to assist Ms. Johnson in the unsteady walk/shuffle across that last 40 feet to the sure. One of the shore line rescuers, river guide C. J. Revtai, called to them to get their attention, and then made a clean, accurate throw of a rope line to Pat. Pat was wearing a professional life jacket [a jacket called a “rescue jacket”] which has a quick-release attachment ring. Pat secured the rope to the quick-release ring and looped it behind he and Eric who were facing upstream with Ms. Johnson between them. Grasping Ms. Johnson around her waist they cautiously waded/shuffled out of the eddy and into the current. With C.J. anchoring the rope from upstream on the shore it provided the critical stability that supported the final “walk” across that last swiftwater channel. Moments later Ms. Johnson was safely on the shore.
The first victim to be pulled from the river onto the safety of the shore was Ms. Bechtold. She was met there almost immediately by Dee Reddick who had rushed there from up on the bridge. Dee immediately reassured Ms. Bechtold and held and calmed her. Ms. Bechtold was understandably anxious for her friend Ms. Johnson. Dee was able to see Ms. Johnson being assisted to the shore by the kayakers and on-shore helpers and she assisted Ms. Bechtold to walk down the shoreline to regroup with her friend. Once the victims were again together and safe on shore, they were assisted by Dee and the on-shore rescuers to a waiting fire department off-road vehicle. They were then driven to a nearby parking lot where an ambulance and EMT soon arrived. In about 10 minutes both had rested, warmed and recovered sufficiently to transport, but both declined the offered ambulance ride. They were given a ride by conventional vehicle back to the outfitter shop where they had rented the raft and where their car was parked. Both women recovered completely and were able to drive themselves home within an hour.
Also to be commended in this successful rescue:
-Ms. Dee Redick whose determined directives and words of encouragement contained the situation until rescuers arrived and whose support on the shore after the rescue helped to calm the victims.
-C.J. Revtai, riverguide, was the shoreline rope handler, whose long distance throw of the rope/safety line helped to safely complete the last element of the rescue.
-Zack Herron, riverguide/kayaker, also entered the water just a few minutes after Pat and Eric. He was fully equipped with kayaking gear, including a spray skirt. Had either Pat or Eric been capsized in their rescues, he was there “backing them up” and ready to step in as needed.
-Dylan Isaacs, kayaker, who loaned his paddling gear without question to Eric Martin to facilitate the rescue.
-Ohiopyle State Park staff [Ofc. Douglas A. Ringer and Ranger Trainee Fred Topper]
and river outfitter employees who provided land-based support to
bring the women from the river up on to the shore to final safety.
-Ohiopyle-Stewart Fire Department who sounded the alarm siren which initially alerted the
Rescuers. VFD responders Sam Dean and Rob Joseph had brought to the point of rescue the ATV/off-road support vehicle which transported the women away from the river and to the Ferncliff Parking area where access to conventional vehicles and the ambulance was available.
-Fayette EMS Service who dispatched an ambulance to the Ferncliff Parking area and provided warmth and first aid.
Though others (mentioned in the commendations section above) contributed significantly to the resolution of this situation, the rescue simply would not have happened- and tragedy most likely would have resulted- were it not for the kayakers Patrick McCarty and Eric Martin. Both of these rescuers were available by coincidence but became directly involved by choice when they recognized the gravity of the situation. They both reacted immediately to the pressing need of this rescue without a moment of hesitation. They took calculated risks to accomplish this rescue, but they had confidence in their knowledge of the river and in their skills as experienced whitewater kayakers and they completed without further incident this tricky and dangerous rescue in which time was so very much of the essence.
Because they knowingly put their own lives at risk to rescue Ms. Bechtold and Ms. Johnson from almost certain death, I nominate Eric Martin and Patrick McCarty for Carnegie Hero Awards.
June 13, 2018
COVER LETTER- pertaining to the CARNEGIE HERO NOMINATION of
PATRICK MCCARTY and ERIC MARTIN, submitted herein.
From, Scott Patton, nominator,
I first composed this report back in September, 2017.
I sent copies to all of the noted witnesses/participants and had to edit/rewrite a number of times after each interview as facts were added and confirmed.
The ONLY inconsistency I see right now is that the Park Manager’s attached letter [copy attached] stated the river level was 4.5 to 5.0 feet, while on-the-scene witnesses stated that the level was “almost 6 feet”.
Other than that, which I see as a minor piece of data, I stand by the factual content of the attached report.
I have all of this data in electronic format [doc file and PDF] and could send those to you via email if you would prefer. My email address is noted above.
I myself was a professional river guide for 40 years on the Youghiogheny River where this rescue occurred and on several other highly regarded [difficult] whitewater rivers and as soon as this incident was first told to me, I concluded “professionally” that, if the facts were verified to be as I had been told, these two men had risked their lives to complete this rescue. Through my research, those facts were confirmed and I therefore am completing my “official” nomination.
Thank you for your consideration!!