Dimple Rapid was the scene of three deaths during the 2000 season, making it the worst year on record for this popular Western Pennsylvania river. On September 16th a church group from Central Pennsylvania rented rafts and duckies for a trip down the river. At Dimple Rapid Andrea Yealy, 16, rammed Dimple Rock and flipped her rented double duck. Her partner washed free, but she disappeared. Her life vest bobbed to the surface shortly. Guides made an extensive search of the area, then radioed for help. Search dogs alerted in the vicinity of Dimple Rock, suggesting that she was trapped there. The river level was lowered overnight by the U.S. Corps of Engineers in Confluence, PA to aid in the search. The next morning her body was pulled from under the left side of Dimple Rock by veteran river guide Scott Downs.
With two deaths occurring at Dimple in so short a time and a third happening earlier in the summer, there was great public concern. Extensive coverage of these deaths in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette by Larry Walsh, a reporter very familiar with boating on the Yough, brought this issue before a wide audience. Relatives of the deceased said that they wanted Dimple Rock blown up before it killed someone else. Dr. Philip Reilly, the Fayette County Coroner who had decided to hold an inquest on all three deaths, initially voiced public support for this drastic step.
The idea appalled the paddling community. Local outfitters and AW Safety Committee reps felt that this action, aside from being contrary to the preservation goals of the Park, could make this rapid even more dangerous. Currently, the pillow on Dimple Rock pushes paddlers away from a number of other big rocks on river left. Some of these are undercut. If the rock were removed, river runners would be carried towards these hazards. Many felt that filling in the undercut upstream face of the rock with concrete made better sense, but legal experts warned any modifications could also expose the State of Pennsylvania to legal liability where none had existed before.
To gain a better understanding of options available to him, Park Manager Doug Hoehn created a safety focus group made up of park managers, outfitters, and paddlers. Personnel from the New River Gorge, the U.S. Corps of Engineers, the PA Fish and Boat Commission, and DCNR management from Harrisburg were also invited to attend. In mid-November he arranged to have the Corps of Engineers drop the river level as far as possible. With the river running at .7 feet and the water crystal clear, I joined a group of rangers and guides one clear, sunny morning to have a close look. You could see the sunlight reflecting out from under the left corner of Dimple Rock. From the river left shore we were able to wade out and probe under the rock with a long pole. We then swam out and looked underneath the rock with a divers mask.
We got an eyeful! Dimple Rock sits on the edge of a rock outcropping. It overhangs the current by four to six feet over much of its width, topping out an irregular "room" roughly four feet high. Even at .7 feet, the roof of the "room" is a foot below the surface of the river. At 3.5 feet, when the water starts to wash onto the top of Dimple Rock, the "room" is under roughly 7' of water. The space is so large that the trees removed after a 1996 drowning almost certainly did not fill it. The water was murky at that time, which is why no one got a clear view of this area. I believe that most rafters who flip above the rock stay in the pillow and are washed to the right and safety. An unfortunate few get washed deep, and end up under the rock. They are unable to work their way out the sides and back to the surface before running out of air, but are later washed free.
At the focus group meeting a few weeks later the group discussed all aspects of river safety for commercial and private paddlers on the Lower Yough. We looked at the accident rates for guided, rental, and private paddlers. We found out where accidents have occurred over the past two decades. Prior to the 2000 season, Dimple was considered just one of several dangerous places on the river. The three recent fatalities, which made this the worst year for drowning in the history of the Yough, increased the total number of people killed in Dimple Rapid by 50%.
We also learned that Dimple may not be the only rock in this area that’s undercut. Scott Downs, who has been guiding on the river for many years, said that Washover Rock, to the right of Dimple, is badly undercut, as are several other rocks just downstream. It is possible that some or all of the victims are were held under by other rocks, so "fixing" Dimple might not solve the problem. Modifications have been tried at other rivers, with varying success. Paddlers emphasized to park personnel the difficulty of doing something that works, the possibility of creating an unexpected additional hazard, and the need to do the job right.
After these discussions, a consensus was reached:
First, an improved education program should be initiated, including: 1) Stronger wording of the risks of river running in the park safety video, 2) Signs warning of danger at Dimple Rock at the put in and at the top of the rapid. These should describe the danger, indicate that people have died at this location, and recommend scouting and portaging when in doubt. 3) Handouts for rental rafters on the dangers of Dimple Rapid, and 4) Improved guide safety training, including an evaluation of whether gear can be pre-positioned at known hazardous sites.
Second, that there should be steps taken to facilitate portaging. The group supported creation of a portage trail at the top of the rapid on River right. Mr. Hoehn reported that there are issues of land ownership and endangered species at this site, but that these problems should not be insurmountable.
Third, we agreed that the rock should not be removed, both for esthetic reasons and because it might cause people to wash into other dangerous rocks downstream of Dimple. We also felt that the Park should study the feasibility of filling the undercut section of Dimple Rock, using contacts with the Corps of Engineers and the State Highway Department. It should be noted that even if a solution is found, water levels will not allow anything to be done until the fall of 2001. In the meantime, the rest of the safety program should go forward.
This meeting was good preparation for the coroner’s inquest, held on November 28th in the Uniontown, PA courthouse. Dr. Philip Reilly has examined other Yough River deaths with an eye towards improving safety. Most of the day was devoted to gathering testimony from people who were there. Family members of all three victims were represented, and the Ohiopyle State Park ranger staff was there in force. I was asked by the Coroner to testify as an outside expert, and was able to answer some questions on PFD testing, river modification, and other issues. Afterwards, Doug Hoehn presented the recommendations of the focus group. In the end, the coroner’s jury adopted his recommendations in their findings, commending the focus group for their efforts in planning improved safety measures for the 2001 season.
Although removing Dimple Rock never seemed like a good idea, the issue of filling the undercut aroused strong passions in the paddling community. After requesting comments on several internet forums, my emails were sharply divided on the issue. In what has to be the most appalling example of insensitivity I have ever encountered, some paddlers sent what amounted to hate emails to grieving Yealy family members who joined on-line discussions. I have often been shocked at what is said on line after accidents by people on these forums. Remember that emails are very public form of expression, so be careful what you say. I hope to see more responsible communication in the future.