Accident Database

Report ID# 3637

  • Swim into Rock or Sieve
  • Does not Apply
  • Other

Accident Description

 — Rescue workers decided that getting Michael Thomas Dorris’ body home to his family outweighed the risk of one of them going into the gushing waters of the Chattooga River to retrieve it Wednesday.

Following a search challenged by heat, isolation and rugged terrain, workers pulled the Nashville man’s body from the water at 11:36 a.m.

A total of 100 river guides and emergency workers, some professionals and some volunteers, found Dorris’ body shortly after 9 a.m. Tuesday, using an underwater camera. Oconee County Fire Chief Charlie King said the angle at which the body was wedged under a large rock and the current pushing against it hindered them from recovering it that day.

Dorris was rafting with his wife and teenage grandson and five other passengers Saturday afternoon when their craft flipped, pulling him downstream. They last saw him sink near Allison’s Rock in the Five Falls section of the river.

Oconee County emergency leaders showed photos of the rescue at a news conference Wednesday in Walhalla. Rescue workers used complex rope systems anchored on both banks of the river to stabilize a raft platform atop the slippery rock. Crews held ropes and workers stood behind them to back them up. They took shifts, King said, so they would be at their optimum strength.

A crew member got in the three feet of water and used a pole to move one of Dorris’ limbs. A sturdy rope net lifted the body out of the river. Nearby a helicopter operated by the South Carolina Army National Guard and state fire marshal’s office was ready to go in case of an accident.

Dorris was an avid rafter, and he and his wife were attempting the Chattooga for the first time.He was rafting Saturday with Wildwater Ltd. “The outfitter guides were operating well within the operating plan that we give them,” said Michelle Burnett, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forestry Service, which manages the river. “The flow levels were perfectly safe when they were out there.”

The river has no signs warning passengers of its dangers, Burnett said, because its threat is apparent. “It’s Mother Nature,” she said. “It’s not a water park. It’s the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River.”

Dorris’ death was the first one known on the river involving a commercial rafting trip, and the first death in the river in nine years, according to Oconee County Coroner Karl Addis. One rescue worker suffered heat-related illness at the end of Wednesday’s work day around 1 p.m., King said. He recovered after drinking water and sitting in the shade and for about an hour. “It was treacherous. It was dangerous,” Burnett said. “We had a lot of experts recovering Mr. Dorris’ body.”

Crews referred to drawings of rescues executed in the 1990s, and King said they were instructed to take notes on this week’s recovery while it was fresh on their minds. Wildwater Ltd. released a prepared statement saying rafting staff immediately began calling for Dorris, throwing him ropes and dialing 911.

“Whitewater rafting is an active, physically demanding, participatory sport,” the statement says. “It involves inherent risks that can be minimized, but never eliminated, even for the most skilled and experienced rafters and raft guides.”

Commercial rafting tours continued during rescue attempts, but King said they did not hamper crews. An autopsy for Dorris is planned Thursday, Addis said.

Dorris’ stepson, Lowrie Webber of Nashville, hiked three miles with two friends to the river banks. He stood 40 yards away watching the man he called his father leave the river.

“We discouraged him, but we also understand that for some people that’s the way they cope with it,” King said. “They’ve got a tough road ahead of them, but now they will be able to move on.”

© 2012 Anderson Independent Mail. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. 

Chattooga River Recovery at Allison's Rock

Day 1 
Incident occurred at a water level of 1.9 at the 76 gauge and rising. Heavy rain fall upstream expected to crest at 3.5 (3000+CFS). A rapid strike team consisting of a senior SWT/Instructor and another SWT, along with a boat operator and medic where dispatched via boat to the last rapid in 5 falls from Tugaloo Lake via John Boat. The two man crew hiked into the scene on the South Carolina side, swimming over to the GA side when upstream of Sockemdog rapid. Water Level now 2.2. Following evaluation and interviews 20 min. the river had reached a level that prevented the team returning to the SC side and had to cut trail back to the boat on the GA side. Officials began interviewing the witnesses at the rafting company. The Chattooga River Task Force was implemented following a pre-established MOU.

Day 2
Started preparing equipment and personnel watched the river level for favorable conditions (More Rain Upstream).

Day 3

Task Force Meeting, resources of manpower, material, transportation, duties, arranged

Day 4

Deployed from Woodall Shoals at water level of 1.7 and falling with 5 rafts loaded with all equipment each raft had an experienced river guide to ensure safety and all in the rafts where swift water trained. A raft was configured once on scene for use as a platform, upstream anchor was 200 plus feet from desired search area but in the perfect alignment. We had used this anchor point in the past. A river right and left set at 30 degrees up stream where set for side to side control and a team where placed on Allison's rock for forward stability. A team of 4 where in the raft consisting of a guide, camera pole operator, monitor observer and another guide to operate as a safety. A deep Sea power and light camera was inserted inside a 20 foot 1.5 inch pole, with the camera sitting 1 inch inside the pole to create a water bubble for clear viewing. Over the course of several hours we located the victim's foot and lower leg. In attempting to hook the victim we moved him and he was lost for another 2 hours until relocated now floating against the Ceiling of Allison's rock in a domed area river right downstream. Due to the angles the camera operator had to enter the rapid and was tethered to the raft with a 4:1 haul system and directional tether. This allowed viewing. Operations halted.

Day 5

Started much as day 4 except increased the number of rafts and manpower. Once on scene the platform was reestablished, Technician reentered the water. Water level now 1.5 or less. Victim was relocated via camera, in order to reach the victim a hook was used to reach his right lower leg. Once captured the leg caused the victim to roll becoming more accessible a second attachment was made on the left upper thigh near the pelvis and the victim was extricated.

Manpower on scene exceeded 35 with technicians from 5 counties, 2 states, 9 local river guides and other qualified staff. Command had another 20 or so involved in transportation, communications and support. No injuries resulted from this operation


Nashville man presumed drowned on Chattooga River

Michael Thomas Dorris, 58, of Nashville, TN.

by Kirk Brown

Posted July 14, 2012

A 58-year-old Nashville, Tenn., man is missing and presumed drowned after a Chattooga River rafting mishap near Long Creek in Oconee County. At the request of his family, the man’s name is not being released until more relatives are notified, said Oconee County Coroner Karl Addis. Addis provided the following account:

Around 12:20 p.m. Saturday, a commercial raft affiliated with Wildwater Ltd. in Long Creek overturned at the Jawbone rapid. All eight occupants — six guests and two river guides — fell into the river. The man who is presumed drowned, who was wearing a personal flotation device and a helmet, was seen in the river floating face up downstream. All witnesses, including his wife and grandson who were with the outing, said he did not try to swim for shore or reach toward the rescue ropes that were thrown at him. The man was seen going beneath the water surface near a rock in the middle of the river above the Sockem Dog rapid. He is presumed to be lodged beneath that rock, Addis said. According to Addis, a similar incident involving a 30-year-old Atlanta woman happened at the same location in 1995. Her body was recovered 19 days later. 

There have been 38 deaths on the Chattooga River since 1970, based on figures compiled from U.S. Forest Service statistics and coroner’s office records. None of the prior fatalities involved commercial rafting ventures. The most recent reported incident involving a death on the river was in May 2003. According to Addis, the guides on Saturday’s outing did “everything in their power to rescue the man” who is presumed drowned. The other five guests on the raft were rescued and not injured. The guides also were unhurt.

Wildwater Ltd. has led rafting excursions on the Chattooga River since 1971, according the company’s website. In 1974 the Chattooga became the first river in the Southeast to be designated as a “wild and scenic” waterway. Company general manager Jack Wise expressed sympathy and concern for the family of the man who is presumed drowned. “It was a tragic and unfortunate incident,” Wise said Saturday night in a telephone interview. “Sadly we are reminded of the fragility of life and how it can be taken in a moment,” he said in a prepared statement. “Rafting, particularly on the Chattooga River, is challenging and not without risk.”

The area where the raft overturned is known as Section IV of the Chattooga River.“This run covers the steepest section of river currently being run on a commercial basis in the Southeast,” according to the Wildwater website. “In a 1/4-mile gorge, the river drops more than 75 feet through the famed Five Falls: Entrance, Corkscrew, Crack-in-the-Rock, Jawbone and Sockem Dog. Recommended for guest with previous rafting experience, Section IV can be the ultimate challenge for white-water paddlers.” Jawbone, which is where the raft flipped, is the largest of the Five Falls, Wise said. Wise said water levels in the river were changing Saturday because of recent rains. “But that is not unusual,” he added. Wise said Wildwater has canceled today’s runs on Section IV so emergency workers can try to recover the man’s body and also to give his staff an opportunity to regroup. The river will be monitored for the victim, and recovery efforts will be made. Oconee County emergency management personnel will coordinate recovery efforts, Addis said.

Officials from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Forest Service are investigating. © 2012 Anderson Independent Mail. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

From my figuring looking at the gauges it went from around 500 cfs or 1.5 feet to around 2,500 cfs or 3.5 feet. Those of us that know the Chattooga a little know that inches on the gauge can mean feet in the 5 falls area. No way for the guides or river company could know how quickly it was spiking up. I know guides and how professionally they approach the river and safety especially in 5 falls and especially as it would have been rising.


A 58-year old raft customer is missing and presumed dead after a raft flip in the Five Falls area of Section IV of the Chattooga River. It is likely that the body is jammed in a really bad undercut at Allison's Rock, immediately below Jawbone Rapid where the raft flip occurred. The raft was being double-guided. Both guides and the other raft customers either swam to an eddy or were rescued by throw rope. The victim reportedly made no attempt to swim to safety and did not make an attempt to grab any of the rescue ropes thrown to him prior to the body entrapment.

Local sources tell me that due to rainfall, the water came up very fast during the trip. A recovery attempt today was aborted by more rain and high water levels. Another attempt is tentatively planned for Tuesday, which should give the water level time to recede. Recovery options there are limited due to very rugged terrain, reported numerous strainers in the undercut, and few good anchor options above the rapid.

Coroner: Man Missing on the Chattooga, Presumed Drowned

Nashville Man Presumed Drowned on Chattooga River

Oconee County (SC) Emergency Management established a Command Post at the Long Creek fire station. Rabun County (GA) is also involved in the operation. The rafting companies have reportedly temporarily suspended Section IV trips and several private raft trips did not put on Section IV after other boaters talked them out of risking the high-water trip today. The best option for now seems to be 1) don't kill anyone else and 2) wait for the water to recede.

Regards, Ben Waller

Re: Chattooga Drowning, Water Too High To Attempt Immediate Recovery Thanks, Ben. Nasty spot on a river full of 'em. We did a body recovery there a number of years back and it took two weeks. That undercut is really undercut. Anyone who has a copy of my book Swiftwater Rescue can refer to the photo page 22 and see the spot in question. Slim

OCONEE COUNTY, S.C. - Oconee County Emergency Management officials said a man drowned Saturday after falling out of an overturned boat on the Chattooga River. The coroner identified the man as Michael Thomas Dorris, 58, of Nashville, TN. The coroner said Dorris was the owner of Bentex Services, Inc., a long hauling trucking company based in Nashville. Dorris was rafting with his family in the Five Falls area when his boat overturned, officials said. Guides from the rafting company made multiple rescue attempts but were unable to find him.

Responders assessed the area and determined that water levels make any attempt at a recovery unsafe. The Chattooga River is running at about 2,000 cubic feet per second.Emergency officials are monitoring the water levels to determine when it will be safe for responders to attempt a recovery. Responders are working closely with local rafting companies due to their expertise on the water. Officials said rescuers are facing the challenges of changing water levels of the river, the remote location of the incident and the dangers of working around moving water. On Sunday, officials said a local guide service provided staff to float the water. A group of rescue workers also hiked into the site to determine the equipment and manpower needed for operations on the rapid.

Officials said the water flow of Chattoga River continued to drop as the day went on. As of 7 p.m. Sunday, officials said the flow level has dropped to 775 cubic feet per second from its peak flow of nearly 2,500 cubic feet per second Saturday night.Saturday night the Oconee County coroner's office announced the victim was a 58-year-old man from Nashville, Tennessee.

Read more:


Chattooga River victim suffered broken back

By Jennifer Crossley Howard

Posted July 19, 2012

Dorris died when the upper part of his back broke, preventing him from swimming to safety, according to Oconee County Coroner Karl Addis. He suffered a fracture or dislocation of the thoracic spinal column. That part of the back extends from the bottom of the neck to the lower back. In a media statement, Addis indicated Dorris received a blow to the face.

His manner of death is classified as accidental. Forensic pathologist Brett Woodward performed the autopsy at AnMed Health Medical Center.

Rescue workers pulled the 58-year-old man’s body from the river Thursday morning. It was lodged beneath a large rock. Dental records confirmed Dorris’ identity.

Dorris, who was from Nashville, Tenn., was riding in a raft with his wife, 18-year-old grandson, and five other passengers when the raft overturned and everyone fell out.

A celebration of his life is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tenn. His obituary in The Tennessean newspaper describes him as “an eternal optimist” who was an Eagle Scout, piloted planes and spent summers watching from a lifeguard’s stand. Dorris grew up in Florida and moved to Nashville in the 1970s. He was married to Mary Ann Dorris for 24 years and was a father to her two children. Mary Ann Dorris said meeting Dorris brought adventure to her life that did not exist before him. Besides his wife and children, Dorris’ parents, two sisters and four grandchildren survive him.

© 2012 Anderson Independent Mail. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. 

This is the third drowning at Allison's Rock!

1st was a rafting trip and the rocks namesake. She drowned on the right side 

2nd was a private boater. High water, got worked in the hole that forms on the river left side of hydro and swam into the left side of the rock. 

3rd washed into the right side.


By: WSPA Staff | News Channel 7 
Published: July 17, 2012


The body of the rafter who was missing in an Oconee County river has been located.

Rescue and recovery crews were able to find the body of 58-year-old Michael Thomas Dorris of Nasheville with a pole mounted camera in the Chattooga River.

Authorities say his body was found Tuesday morning lodged against a rock below the water.

Dorris was on a commercial raft trip with Wildwater Ltd. in Long Creek Saturday when the raft he was in overturned at Jaw Bone rapid.  Eight people went into the water.  Dorris was seen wearing his life jacket and helmet floating down the river.  Witnesses say he went under water above the Sockem Dog rapid.

The coroner tells 7 On Your Side family members say he never attempted to swim for the shore or towards the rope that was thrown at him for rescue.

Tuesday, a 24 person crew consisting of river guides and rescue technicians floated 90 minutes to the area where Dorris was last seen.  There, they set up a system of ropes and used the underwater camera in the rapid and found his body.

Officials say the difficult task of recovering the body will take some time.  It’s unsure how long at this point.

The recovery operation attempted Tuesday is the type that hasn't been done in almost two decades on the Chattooga River. Rescuers cannot reach the area by ground. They had to use rafts and kayaks to float their equipment in to the remote search area. 

Oconee County Fire Chief Charlie King says, “They’re dealing with the dangers of the level (of the river) and certainly, with the weather we're having, the fluctuating river levels.” 

The fast-rising rapids are likely what lead to the recovery operation in the first place.   

Mary Ann Dorris spoke to us from Nashville Tuesday. She and her grandson were with her husband, Michael on a raft that capsized on the Chattooga Saturday. Michael died in the accident, and his body is wedged underneath a rock on the river. 

Mary Ann Dorris says, “There were eight of us in the raft and why that raft flipped, I have no idea.” She goes on to say, “I heard them (the raft guides) hollering, 'Swim left. Swim left,' and That's when I saw Michael floating down the river head first. And first thing, that's the wrong way to go when you're floating down the river, and he just didn't respond.” 

Before Tuesday, crews could not search or try to recover Michael's body. the rapids were just too dangerous. 

Around mid-morning Tuesday, they found the body, using a camera mounted on a pole. But it's still too dangerous to send anyone underwater. Emergency officials tell us crews are using ropes and other equipment to try and pull the body out. 

Mary Ann says, “That will answer a lot of questions, when we get the autopsy report.”

A similar incident in this same location occurred in April, 1995 when a 30-year-old Atlanta woman’s body was recovered after more than two weeks.

Wednesday recovery efforts continue with personnel from Oconee County Emergency Services, Rabun County Emergency Services, Habersham County Technical Rescue Team, Greenville County Emergency Response Team, SC Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team (SCHART), Anderson County Sheriff's Office, Pickens County Water Rescue Team, Wildwater Ltd., Southeastern Expeditions, Nantahala Outdoor Center and the U.S. Forest Service.

As of Saturday, there have been 38 deaths on the Chattooga River since 1970. The last reported river incident with death was in May of 2003.

This would the first commercial operated incident with a loss of life. The statement from the coroner says guides did everything within their power to rescue Michael Dorris. The other people on the boat were rescued and not injured.



Body of missing rafter recovered from Chattooga River

By The Associated Press


Chattooga River/file photo

WALHALLA, S.C. (AP) A body believed to be a Nashville, Tenn., man who fell from a raft in rapids in the Chattooga River has been recovered after spending nearly four days wedged against a rock under the water. 

Authorities say divers recovered 58-year-old Michael Dorris just before noon Wednesday. Oconee County Coroner Karl Addis plans an autopsy Thursday to confirm the identity and determine a cause of death. 

Investigators say Dorris was on a commercial raft trip Saturday when the boat overturned. The other seven people were rescued. 

The rapids are so swift, it took searchers until Tuesday to find the body, and another day to set up a way to recover the remains. 

Emergency workers from Rabun County, Ga. assisted in the recovery efforts.


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