Accident Database

Report ID# 367

  • Flush Drowning
  • Hypothermia
  • Cold Water
  • Inadequate Equipment

Accident Description


Rafting Accident Kills 2 S. Phila. Girls Die In Poconos On Lehigh River Outing

Posted: March 14, 1995

On Sunday afternoon, Dino Zin told his friends he had found a "really nice spot" where they could go whitewater rafting down the Lehigh River near White Haven, Pa.So two South Philadelphia couples and their younger brothers and sisters set off for a day of fun. They picked up a couple of inexpensive rafts, blew them up and then piled five people in one and four in the other.It was a tragedy waiting to happen.

Shortly after they embarked, the swimming pool-type raft with five people capsized on the river, which divides Carbon and Luzerne counties. The area is near Interstate 80.Two South Philadelphia girls, Sophy Voeun, 14, of Bancroft Street near Reed, and Chhoeum Tim, 11, of 5th Street near Jackson, disappeared in the water.They had no wetsuits nor wet shoes and no proper life jackets. Neither did they have regulation rafts or emergency equipment needed to ride down the turbulent 35-degree Lehigh River, flushed with melting snow and recent heavy rains.
Chantha Voeum, 12, Sophy's brother, swam to shore, a relative said. Sophia Pa, 22, jumped in the water to try to save the girls, but she couldn't swim, said Mrs. Joan McFadden, a nursing supervisor at Geisinger Medical Center in Wyoming Valley. Zin, of Abington near Clark's Summit in the Poconos, rescued Pa, McFadden said. She said Zin had rafted on the Lehigh five times before.
"All Sophia said was 'they should have saved the girls and not me,' " said McFadden. Seven survivors were taken to the medical center, where they were treated for mild hypothermia. The Red Cross housed them in an area motel. But the bodies of the two girls were not found for another 21 hours - after the fog lifted and an upstream dam cut back its water flow twice during the rescue effort.
The Army Corps of Engineers reduced the flow of the Francis E. Walter Dam from more than five feet to about 3 1/2 feet. At 9:40 a.m. yesterday, the bodies were spotted by mountain bikers using binoculars from the river bank. The bodies were floating near the Lehigh- Tannery bridge in Luzerne County about 2 1/2 miles from where the group had set off. They were pronounced dead at 11 a.m. by Luzerne County assistant chief coroner Harry Hyman. Autopsies are set for today.
"The combination of improper equipment, cold water and lack of knowledge . . . was a disaster," said Ted Newton, owner of Lehigh Rafting Rentals. Initially hampered by a language barrier, authorities had to find an interpreter to find out what happened from the Cambodian families. The investigation was continuing by the state police, Luzerne County district attorney's office, and the state Dams, Wetlands and Waterways Bureau.
Last night, relatives of both girls expressed shock and sadness. Sarvon Lok, a mother of seven, appeared distraught talking in Cambodian about her daughter, Sophy, with sympathetic friends. Drawing on her Buddhist beliefs, she had told her 13-year-old daughter, Rithy Voeun: "Sophy came down to earth and asked me to be a mom for only a little while and then she left." Serving as family interpreter, Rithy Voeun said she had been crying ever since she learned of the deaths when she returned from school yesterday.
"Sophy liked to write poems and was on the volleyball team and was training for lacrosse at Barrett Middle School . . . She wanted to be a mother and be in business," said Voeun. "She's really nice, but she talks a lot."
Voeun said her 17-year-old sister, Chandy, had called home Sunday three times, reluctant to tell her mother that her younger sister was missing and presumed drowned. Finally, Zin arrived to pick up Voeun's father, Savoeun Touch, 44, and Tim's parents and returned to the scene.
Tim attended Sharswood Middle School, where she had earlier been honored as ''Student of the Month."
"She was a nice person," said her sister, Chheab Tim, 13. "Kind, loving and sometimes bad. She was a perfect sister, but sometimes she was a brat. Sometimes we fight but we make up. "Her teacher was crying at school and two of her friends were crying . . . I didn't know she died," said Tim. "Everybody is taking it pretty hard."
Carbon County Coroner Bill Jeffries, on standby during the rescue, said the ''40-degree water will kill you in a half-hour. And that water was 35 degrees. These rafting companies make you wear wetsuits here until June when the water gets 55 degrees." "The river is a real bear," he added.



Lehigh River near White Haven, PA: March 12, 1995

Gradient 24 fpm; Level 800 cfs; Classification II-III

DESCRIPTION: The Lehigh River is a popular intermediate run for paddlers from New York to Philadelphia . It's delightful class II-III rapids offering plenty of playing in a wild setting. An extended family, probably of Asian descent, purchased some cheap vinyl rafts and a few "horse-collar" PFD's before arriving at White Haven to run the river. The water Temperature was 34°; the air temperature was 50°. Kayakers attempted to warn the group, but they did not respond. Some of the paddlers felt that the rafters did not speak English well and could not understand what they were being told. The rafts flipped within 200 yards of the put-in. The combined efforts of all the boaters present resulted in the rescue of seven of the nine passengers, but two were lost. One of those recovered was only two years old!

The dam was throttled back and a search began involving helicopters, dogs, raft guides, and white water paddlers. After two days the bodies of two kids, aged 12 and 14, were pulled out of the river at Tannery, one mile downstream.

SOURCES: Rich Kulawiec posting to Rec.Boats.Paddle; The Philadelphia Inquirer  

ANALYSIS: A horrible disaster brought about by cold water, inadequate equipment, overloaded boats, inexperience, poor judgement, and a total inability to accept advice. Had there not been a number of experienced paddlers present there would have been many more deaths. 

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