Accident Database

Report ID# 3793

  • Flush Drowning
  • Heart Attack / Heart Failure
  • High Water

Accident Description

A deadly 24 hours: How two women met their deaths on the Ocoee River rapids

By Shelly Bradbury, Chattanooga Times Free Press

Grace Hookway kayaked the Ocoee River on Monday, but she skipped the first major rapid in the Middle Ocoee. Because it's the same rapid -- "Grumpy's" -- where two women died in separate incidents Saturday and Sunday after falling out of their professionally guided rafts.

Hookway shook her head as she stood on the side of the river waiting for her kayaking buddy to make it through the stretch, which is right at the beginning of the run.

"The first time I skipped it, I just thought, well it's my first time on the river, let's not do the hardest rapid," she said. "But now, I'll just avoid it. I don't want to be the third one."

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is investigating the deaths of Marnita McGruder, 51, of Rex, Ga., and Katherine Tyler Luna, 36, of Smyrna, Tenn. Six people have died on the Middle Ocoee since 1993, according to American Whitewater, a national nonprofit organization focused on preserving rivers and whitewater. McGruder and Luna bump that up to eight.

The deaths over the weekend are the first on the river since 2011, when two people died on the Upper Ocoee. Before that, the last recorded death of a customer on a commercial raft was in 1998, said Kip Gilliam, president of the Ocoee River Outfitters Association.

"It's a freak accident, two times in 24 hours," he said. "It's very seldom that we have accidents like this, and to have two in the same weekend is absolutely unbelievable."

About 4,700 people rafted the river Saturday, Gilliam said. Every year, about 230,000 adventurers flock to the Ocoee River, which is the most-visited whitewater river in the United States, according to a study by the University of Tennessee released in May. The Middle Ocoee contains Level III rapids, which require strong intermediate skills, according to American Whitewater.

McGruder was rafting with High Country Adventures, and Luna was on the river with Sunburst Adventures. High Country Adventures did not return a request for comment, and Sunburst Adventures declined to comment.

On Saturday, McGruder and another women fell out of their raft around 11:30 a.m., according to the Polk County Sheriff's Office. One woman was pulled back on board. McGruder grabbed a rescue rope but lost consciousness before she could be pulled to safety.

Some witnesses said it looked as if McGruder may have had a heart attack, but the results of the autopsy won't be available for several weeks.

A day later, Luna fell out of her raft with several other people when the raft was caught in the same rapid. She was unable to make it to shore and was picked up by two kayakers around 11:45 a.m.

Rescuers performed CPR on both women, and both were taken by ambulance to Copper Basin Medical Center, about nine miles away.

Early reports indicated that the river was running higher than unusual, but the levels were within the range considered safe for commercial rafting, according to the Tennessee Valley Authority.

At the time of the accident Saturday, the water was flowing between 2,300 and 2,600 cubic feet per second, according to TVA. On Sunday the flow was slightly less, at 2,200 to 2,500 cubic feet per second.


Commercial rafters have to get off the water at 3,000 cubic feet per second. If the water flow gets that high, TVA alerts the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and that agency alerts rafters, said TDEC spokeswoman Kelly Brockman. She confirmed that TVA never made that call.

"Commercial traffic did not stop," she said.

Gilliam didn't think high water flow affected the guides involved in the accident, who he said were very experienced. "Both of the guys this weekend were very good raft guys," he said. "I can't quote years of experience, but I know one of them has been around since the 1980s."

And regardless of the official safe water level, the final decision on whether to raft is made by each trip leader, Gilliam said. "They can make that call; if they don't want to go, they don't have to go," he said, adding that the weekend's water was high but not unusual. "We've been rafting on that same amount of water all summer. This is not the first time it's been at that level."

Keith Jenkins, owner of Quest Expeditions, agreed that the river has been high all summer. "We probably had more high water this year than I can ever remember, and I've been around 30 years," he said. "It's not that they weren't experienced on high water. It did spike on them, which was unusual."

Brockman said McGruder and Luna were both wearing life vests and helmets. "We're still in the investigation process, and it could take a few weeks," she said. "They pull certificates and they look at the waivers that were signed and that kind of stuff."

The river was full of rafters again Monday, a day after Luna died. And while some adventurers, like Hookway, opted to skip "Grumpy's," several companies were again running rafts through that rapid. The rafting industry on the Ocoee employs 622 people and generates $43.83 million in economic activity each year, according to the UT study.

Jenkins said he's more concerned about figuring out what happened Saturday and Sunday than he is worried about the effect the deaths could have on his customer base.

"Our pressing concern right now is looking at what happened and what took place," he said. "That's more important than the loss of business. Our goal is to provide a safe trip."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at or 423-757-6525.

Atlanta woman dies in Ocoee rafting accident 51 year-old Marnita McGruder, from Rex, GA by Alex Green An Atlanta woman died Saturday on the Ocoee River while rafting with a group, and TVA is looking at the river's flow and height at the time. TVA controls how much water goes into the Ocoee River with three dams, Ocoee 1 Dam, Ocoee 2 Dam and Ocoee 3 Dam. According to a Polk County Sheriff's Office news release, the Atlanta woman, whose identity was not released, was rafting with family and friends below the Ocoee 2 Dam when the party's boat came upon a set of rapids called "Grumpy's." Two women were thrown overboard, but one was pulled back into the raft. The other was tossed a rescue rope bag and reportedly grabbed the rope but then lost consciousness. She was brought ashore downstream and pronounced dead when emergency crews arrived around 11:30 a.m.

According to TVA's website, at 11 a.m. Sunday, 30 minutes before the incident, the Ocoee 2 Dam was discharging 3,245 cubic feet per second into the waterway. The dam was operating two generators. It was the first time since 7 a.m. Thursday that discharge broke 3,000 cfs, according to Tennessee Valley Authority spokesman Scott Brooks said the river flow was higher than normal Saturday. "I know that we had some flows that were above normal for this time of year, and we're looking into that," he said. Brooks said he did not know whether the flume at Ocoee 2 was operating Saturday morning, carrying some water to generate power instead of channeling it into the river. He also said the river did not reach the cut-off level Saturday. "We have a specific guide level where we would notify the rafting companies to pull people out of the river," he said. "I can confirm that that did not happen today." Steve Lofty, chief of West Polk Fire and Rescue, said Saturday there is no way rafters would be on the river if it was running too high or fast. "If that river was too high, the state park would've shut it down in a heartbeat," he said.

Brooks said if the river reaches the cut-off level, TVA contacts the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. "TDEC are the ones who make that call," he said. Polk County sheriff's officials could not confirm whether there were multiple incidents on the river Saturday. According to newspaper archives, Saturday's death was the first since two rafters died within two weeks of each other in June on the Ocoee. More than 300,000 visit the Ocoee each year. Two deaths in two days on the Ocoee both at put in rapid (Grumpies) One at 3100 cfs one at 3800 cfs, Raft trips are suppose to cut off at 3000. Both ladies one very overweight, One with High Country Outfitters the one today with sunburst. News of the Sunday accident had already spread to Hell Hole when we pulled up at around 2pm to set shuttle.

Below is Ocoee #2 Sunday flow beta from the TVA web site. Day Time (Eastern) Average Hourly Discharge* 8/25/2013 2 pm 1,912 8/25/2013 3 pm 1,944 8/25/2013 4 pm 2,542 8/25/2013 5 pm 2,237 8/25/2013 6 pm 1,904 8/25/2013 7 pm 1,837 8/25/2013 8 pm 1,756 TEXT ATTACHMENTS


TVA Investigating Water Flow After Ocoee River Deaths

Two women died while white-water rafting this weekend in the Ocoee River. The latest happened Sunday morning around 11:40, the first incident was Saturday only 20 minutes earlier. Now, TVA investigators are looking into whether they should have issued a warning about how fast the river was flowing. A class 4 rapid took 2 lives this weekend. It's called Grumpy's rapid, and it's well-known in the rafting and kayaking world. "It is a rapid to be very respected. this whole river deserves respect," said Cole Henderson, an experienced kayaker. One experienced rafting guide says the river was flowing too fast when two women were killed this weekend after their rafts overturned. "We know what the water is running just by looking at it.

Yesterday, when the first death occurred yesterday, the water level, I was an eyewitness to that death, the water level was over 3,000. And I know what 3,000 CFS looks like," said Jamie Silver, acting river manager at Adventures Unlimited. 3,000 cubic feet per second. That's how fast the water has to be flowing in to TVA's Dam 2 for authorities to issue a warning to outfitters to halt water activities. A table posted on TVA's website shows how fast the water was flowing out of the dam on Saturday. The CFS rose by nearly 1,000 cubic feet per second during the time of Saturday's fatal run. It didn't drop below 3,000 until 7 that night. "That number you see on there is the point past that where the flume comes back in, and that's the total flow, including the river and the flume," said Scott Brooks, a spokesperson for TVA. Brooks says the agency is investigating the conditions and the CFS estimates. Meanwhile, Jamie Silver says while families are mourning the loss of their loved ones that were taken by this river, he is fighting for answers. "In my opinion, it was incompetence and negligence on TVA's part in the release of the water, and it's been going on all summer long and you're lucky this the first weekend this has happened," said Silver. TVA estimates the CFS during Sunday's fatality was less than 1,700. Meanwhile, authorities have not released the names of the two women that died.

2 rafting deaths in 2 days on Ocoee River Associated Press

Published Sunday, August 25, 2013

BENTON, Tenn. (AP) — Authorities say two women have died while rafting on the Ocoee River in separate incidents in two days. The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports the first death happened Saturday when a woman who was rafting with two friends was thrown overboard in rapids. The release says the woman was from Atlanta, but it didn't identify her. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation told WRCB-TV that another woman fell out of a raft on Sunday morning. Officials didn't release her name, but said she was from Smyrna, Tenn. The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported after the first incident that the Tennessee Valley Authority was reviewing the river's flow and height at the time of the incident. The TVA controls the amount of water in the river with three dams.

Story ©2013, The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

McGruder was rafting with High Country Adventures, and Luna was on the river with Sunburst Adventures. High Country Adventures did not return a request for comment, and Sunburst Adventures declined to comment.

On Saturday, McGruder and another women fell out of their raft around 11:30 a.m., according to the Polk County Sheriff's Office. One woman was pulled back on board. McGruder grabbed a rescue rope but lost consciousness before she could be pulled to safety.

Some witnesses said it looked as if McGruder may have had a heart attack, but the results of the autopsy won't be available for several weeks.

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