Accident Database

Report ID# 3763

  • Caught in Low Head Dam Hydraulic
  • Near Drowning
  • One Boat Trip

Accident Description

Upstate rafters survive terror on NC river Caught in hydraulic in Pigeon River

Sep. 1, 2013

Written by Charlie Sowell GreenvilleOnline.Com

It was supposed to be a celebratory rafting trip where lifelong buddies got together to enjoy rafting on a mild stretch of river in North Carolina. Botched map-reading and misleading Internet information almost cost best friends David Cunningham, 30, and Jimmy Tillery, 29, their lives this summer on the Pigeon River when they became trapped in a hydraulic at Canton, N.C.

Cunningham, the birthday boy, and Tillery had delayed their trip for a week because of torrential rains and high waters roaring through on area rivers. Best friends since the fourth grade at Southside Christian School, they got a break in the weather and headed for the water. “I was beginning to think it would be a great day,” Cunningham said. “It had rained for several days and the rivers were all swelled, but I went online and checked out the water levels on the Pigeon and it said everything was OK.” It’s not that there weren’t premonitions or warnings.

Both men’s wives were uneasy about the trip, and something made Cunningham go by the cell phone store where he worked in Travelers Rest and pick up a water-resistant case for his iPhone. That case and the waterproof plastic bag that he carried it in on the river were about to save their lives. The small map the phone showed for directions also landed them in trouble when they misread it and put in on the river just upstream from a small diversion dam for the paper mill at Canton.

“The river did not look very dangerous,” Cunningham said. “It was flowing faster than normal but did not look crazy by any means.” They dropped off Tillery’s car at the spot where they planned to get out of the river, about 25 miles downstream, and then headed back upstream for the put-in spot. “We got on the river right next to the Canton High School football stadium,” Cunningham said. “We said a short prayer and started down. I took my iPhone and put it in a few plastic bags, just in case, you never know.” The pair had gone about a half-mile when they saw what they thought were the first rapids. Cautious, they paddled toward the shore to check it out before going through it. As they paddled over, “We could see it better and for some reason we thought it didn’t look so bad,” said Cunningham. When the pair realized they were actually paddling toward a man-made dam, it was too late.

The force of the river carried them over the four-foot high structure and their inflatable kayak flipped over, throwing them into the water. The high water on the downstream side of the dam created a keeper hydraulic, a hole formed by current dropping over a vertical or near-vertical obstruction, trapping the duo in the center of the river. When Cunningham surfaced, “My friend Jimmy was yelling for me. I had been under a bit longer than him. He had grabbed the raft which was upside down now and was holding on. Luckily the hydraulic pushed me back towards the raft and I grabbed on, too.” 

The men were in a hopeless situation. The force of the current would push them out, away from the dam, and then pull them back in and try to suck them under. “We had life jackets and helmets and could swim well, but the water was far too strong,” said Cunningham. “If not for the raft to hold to, we wouldn’t have lasted 10 minutes. We both realized after a few minutes there was no getting out on our own. We began praying.”

Then Cunningham remembered his iPhone. He had put the device in his backpack, which was floating in the river a few feet from the kayak. He lunged for it and snagged the backpack. “It was difficult just getting the zipper opened while trying to fight the current, but I was able to get the iPhone out,” he said. “I thankfully had location services turned on so I knew if I could get a 911 call out they could find us.” Making the life-saving call was one of the most nightmarish things that Cunningham ever had to do. “The call went through and I hit the speakerphone button. I heard a 911 operator say something, but I couldn’t make it out. I started yelling, ‘drowning, Pigeon River, Canton, N.C., next to factory, south of high school,’ ” Cunningham said.

Meanwhile, Tillery said, he spotted a person crossing the river on a footbridge downstream of the pair. That person also called 911 and fire trucks started rolling from Canton, Asheville and neighboring communities. By the time rescue personnel arrived, the pair had been in the water for more than an hour. By the time rescuers got a line to the trapped kayakers, they’d been in the water for nearly an hour, 45 minutes. Twenty firefighters heaved at the line and pulled them to safety. Cunningham was unconscious when he was pulled from the river. He was suffering from hypothermia and rhabdomyolysis, a condition where the body literally starts eating muscle tissue and pumping out the toxic protein myoglobin. It can cause kidney failure. Tillery, a coach at Camperdown Academy, suffered a mild case of hypothermia. He was treated and released from a local hospital. Cunningham spent three days in intensive care before he was healthy enough to go home.

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