Accident Database

Report ID# 419

  • Caught in Low Head Dam Hydraulic
  • Does not Apply
  • Failed Rescue

Accident Description

On April 13 a tandem canoe and a kayak paddled down the Raritan Canal and then portaged over to the Millstone River. They arrived at a dam recently built below the confluence of these rivers. The trio scouted and elected to run it where the hydraulic seemed weakest. They clearly did not understand the grave danger that the dam poses to paddlers. The canoe came through, but the kayak did not. Seeing their friend in trouble, the two canoeists paddled back upstream, into the hydraulic: The kayaker was able to grab the front of their canoe, but the pair could not paddle free and were themselfes trapped. The boat flipped, and all three men were churned by the current. They were battered by logs, their boats and other debris caught in the backwash. Eventually the kayaker and one of the canoeists washed out. Bob Koerner, 41, did not survive. A fisherman saw the accident and called 911; both survivors were treated for hypothermia. The body surfaced several days later.

ANALYSIS: (Walbridge)

1. The man clearly did not understand the danger that dams pose to paddlers. It takes many years of experience to tell the difference between a dangerous hydraulic and a safe one. While a few dams can be safely run at low flows, most paddlers are best advised to stay away from them.

2. Part of the safety problem is that, at low flows, dams often turn into harmless water slides. They’re scrapy, but safe. They assume a dangerous configuration after the water rises and a hydraulic forms. This explains why someone may run a dam successfully one day only to encounter trouble on a later attempt.

3. Any attempt to rescue a person caught in the backwash of a dam must keep the rescuers clear of the hydraulic. It’s not unusual for rescuers paddling into a hydraulic to be killed while, as in this case,  the victim survives.

4. After the first drowning in April, the Garden State Canoe Club pressured the water company to post warning signs and to create a marked portage trail. This started a lengthy battle. They gained support from local police and fire companies, state representatives, and finally the New Jersey Marine Police before they succeeded. The signs were in place before the second drowning, and  probably saved the life of Toomey’s companion. Similar warning signs should be maintained by all dam-owning companies as a civic duty.

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