Officials identify kayaker who died in Cypress Creek
Matt McKean TimesDaily, Florence, AL
Published: Thursday, June 30, 2011
Florence fire rescue personnel search below the Cypress Creek millrace at the Florence pumping station for a man who went missing after a group of friends took a kayak trip Wednesday.
Treacherous waters: The Cypress Creek mill dam at the Florence pumping station near where Daniel S. Smith apparently fell from a kayak while floating down the creek with a group of friends. Matt McKean/TimesDaily Rescue workers recovered the body of a missing kayaker this morning on Cypress Creek, where a low head dam has been called a “drowning machine.”
George Grabryan, Lauderdale County Emergency Management Agency director, confirmed at about 11 that the body of Daniel S. Smith, 22, of Cullman, had been found. The victim, a former student at the University of North Alabama, went missing about 4 p.m. Wednesday after he tried to cross a 6-foot low head dam in Cypress Creek, officials said. His kayak flipped and he disappeared into the turbulent water, officials said. "On behalf of our university president and the entire UNA family, our hearts go out to Daniel's family and close friends," said David Shields, UNA vice president for student affairs. "Daniel had many friends here, and this is a devastating time for many. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family." The university is providing professional counseling services through the UNA Health Services office for students affected by the tragedy.
Smith was last enrolled for classes at UNA in spring 2010. Crews searched until dusk Wednesday and resumed today until the body was located. The Alabama Marine Police, Lauderdale Emergency Medical Services, Florence-Lauderdale EMA and the Florence Fire Department were involved in the search. The student was with three friends in front of another group of kayakers who witnessed the accident, officials said. Officials said the friends saw Smith bob up from the water, but were uncertain if he was alive before he disappeared from view. Two firefighters combed the creek in kayaks before the rescue squad focused on an area several hundred feet from the dam. A crew on the shore tethered a blue inflatable raft while four rescue workers swept the creek with their paddles and peered into the muddy waters. Two kayakers across the shore helped sweep the rescue raft back and forth across the creek as workers looked for the man into the night.
Rescue workers at the scene said that after heavy rainfalls like the one Tuesday, kayakers come out in droves to take advantage of the fast-moving waters. Some kayakers take on the challenge of the Cypress Creek concrete dam that typically has inches of water overflow. The barrier can create a hydraulic that pulls a body under and spins it around before releasing the person downstream, rescue workers said.
Families have left memorials of at least five other people who drowned at the site since the city of Florence built the dam in 1980 without approval from the Army Corps of Engineers. For Ronnie Pannell, the events brought back painful memories. His son, William B. Pannell, drowned in a similar canoeing accident in 2005. The city settled a wrongful death lawsuit of $61,000 in June in connection with Pannell's death. The family unsuccessfully requested the dam's removal or modification, but through mediation, the city agreed every three months for the next 10 years to place a warning message in utility bills and a full-page ad in the Courier Journal. City workers also installed a warning sign near the dam and replaced warning signs in the creek.
Pannell called the low head dams “drowning machines.” “This low head dam, after a big huge rain and the water is up, that dam becomes more and more of a monster,” Pannell said. Pannell said his 24-year-old son was athletic and couldn't pull himself free from the hydraulic system created by the low head dam.