Accident Database

Report ID# 438

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Accident Description

 

On July 9 there was a drowning on a Commercial rafting trip on the Lower Youghiogenny River near Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania. It occurred at Dimple Rock, a mildly undercut sandstone block sitting in strong current in the preferred river left channel. The river was running at 2.0' when a Methodist Church group reached Dimple Rapid. The group was pulled over and a guide explained the route. One raft apparently decided to run to the left of Dimple rock instead of to the right. Their right tube hit Dimple Rock, flipping the raft and throwing its six passengers into the water. One of these people, Kathy Lewis, 17, disappeared beneath the surface. Her life jacket, still fully closed, floated free minutes later, but the body was not found until the next day.

It was the company's first death in 21 years of operation. Although there were no marks on ms. Lewis' body, there have been several similar accidents at Dimple Rock over the past few years. Entrapment in a strainer could not be rulled out. Ohiopyle State Park Superintendent Doug Hoehn asked the Corps of Engineers to lower the water level as much as possible. Then a team of river guides and rangers examined the entire rapid and removed several 16" logs and other debris from under Dimple Rock. Then the outfitters, who had been running further to the right since the accident, began running the chute in front of Dimple Rock once again.

Contrary to rumors, the river was never closed and the Corps of Engineers was never directed to improve the riverbed. There has been considerable debate about the wisdom of this approach. Natural rivers are not amusement rides; they change constantly and the safety of participants cannot be guaranteed. Certainly it is not clear that Ms. Lewis was caught in debris, or that removing these trees earlier would have prevented the drowning. Mr. Hoenhn did what he felt was in the best interests of the park and its users. I hope that this will not create the illusion of some future duty on the part of the park to keep the river "safe". This is an impossible task, and might only furnish grounds for future lawsuits.

 

On July 9, 1996 there was a drowning during a commercial rafting trip on the Lower Youghighenny near Ohiopyle, PA. Hundreds of thousands of people make this popular Class III run each year. The accident occurred at Dimple Rock, a mildly undercut sandstone block sitting in a strong current in the preferred river left chute. The river was running at 2.0 feet when a church group pulled in above the drop.

Safety was set, and a guide explained the route. One raft apparently decided on their own to run to the left of Dimple Rock instead of to the right. Their right tube hit Dimple Rock, flipping the raft and throwing its six passengers into the water. One of these people, Kathy Lewis, 17, disappeared beneath the surface. Her life jacket, still fully closed, floated free minutes later, but the body was not found until the next day. It was this outfitter's first death in 21 years of operation.

SOURCE: Connellsville Daily Courier; conversations with Park Rangers and Local Outfitters.

ANALYSIS: (Walbridge)

1. Although there were no marks on Ms. Lewis' body, there have been several similar accidents at Dimple Rock over the past few years. Entrapment in a strainer could not be ruled out. Ohiopyle State Park Superintendent Doug Hoehn asked the Corps of Engineers to lower the river’s water level as much as possible. Then a team of river guides and rangers examined the entire rapid and removed several 16 inch diameter logs and other debris from under Dimple Rock. Then the outfitters, who had been running further to the right since the accident, began running the chute in front of Dimple Rock once again. Contrary to rumors, the river was never closed and the Corps of Engineers was never directed to “improve” the riverbed.

There has been considerable debate about the wisdom of doing this. Natural rivers are not amusement rides; they change constantly and the safety of participants cannot be guaranteed. Certainly it is not clear that Ms. Lewis was caught in debris, or that removing these trees earlier would have prevented the drowning. Mr. Hoehn did what he felt was in the best interests of the Park and its users. I hope that this will not create the illusion of a duty to keep the river "safe". That would be an impossible task.

2. Although the was no evidence that a head injury played a role in this death, the Coroner’s jury recommended the use of helmets by outfitters. It is true that the Lower Yough is the most difficult of the East’s “family Class” rivers, but this river has been run since 1964 with few injuries and no deaths that helmets could have prevented. I’m not convinced that helmets should be required.

3. A number of paddlers have decried the use of unguided rafts on the Lower Yough. Again, this has been the standard practice since 1964, and the low numbers of commercial fatalities give no indication of a need to change. Many people truly enjoy renting rafts or travelling in the “guide assisted” format.

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