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Accident Description


 

Tennessee’s Class III+ Ocoee River is one of the most popular runs in the East. Hundreds of thousands of rafters and kayakers make the trip annually. On November 1, 1997 Mike Reisman died while paddling the river. Here is an account of the accident by Tom Parson, who accompanied him:

 

“In 1968 or ’69, I met Mike Reisman at flight school and became friends. Kayaking became the sport of choice for me around ’74, and Mike became interested in paddling, too. He was a physically capable person who learned fast. He boated the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, and the Arkansas in Colorado. The first years passed swiftly and Mike slowly moved away from kayaking. But recently, as Mike’s son became an active and capable kayaker, he decided to return to the rivers after a long period of  inactivity. 

 

“Mike called me early on the week of November 1, 1997 and wanted to paddle. I said O.K., maybe. Mike also called two other paddling friends and said that if I didn’t go he would have two other kayakers with him. I did go, and with Mike’s friends along we had a group of four . I had not met Mike’s two friends prior to this day, but Mike was confident in their abilities. One was a doctor who had previous experience on the Ocoee as a river raft guide. 

 

“The trip got off to a slow start because Mike flipped and had to swim coming out of the put-in eddy. He swam most of the first series of rapids down river right, letting his paddle get away in the process. The paddle was delivered back upriver to Mike by another boater and we were off again. As we moved down the river I sometimes became separated from the group by some distance, but we were keeping in sight of each other. When they stopped, I would catch up. At “Slice ‘n’ Dice” Mike and I sat side by side talking, and he told me how cold he was. I asked if he had something to put on and Mike said he had a paddling jacket, which he might put on later. 

 

“After the run past “Double Suck” I was left behind again as Mike headed toward “Double Trouble”. As I drifted towards “Double Trouble” I could see Mike and the doctor on the river right bank about 400 feet downstream where Mike was draining water from his boat after another swim. I passed Mike and the doctor with a grin, and Mike answered with a rueful smile of his own. 

 

“Pulling in downstream of Mike with the other member of our group, I watched and waited while he got back into his boat and put on his spray skirt. He was having trouble stretching his skirt onto the boat and the doctor was leaning across to help. The skirt was new and was definitely a tight fit. The skirt had been a problem for Mike each time he entered his boat, but this time it seemed to take even longer. Mike was cold from being in the water, and the weather had gone back to overcast and rainy. 

 

“Finally we were ready to go again. The doctor led off, with Mike floating behind him. I peeled out as Mike passed me and settled about 80 feet behind him. We were floating with the current and I watched as he set up for entry to “Double Trouble”. Mike turned slowly over on his left side. He almost saved himself with a brace before going over. I watched him bring his paddle up into position for a right hand roll, but he did not finish the attempt. As he passed through the rapid I watched for him to appear after exiting the boat, but it quickly became apparent that he was having trouble bailing out. 

 

“I sprinted ahead through the rapid to catch up with Mike. I could see that the doctor was out of his boat, swimming near Mike’s boat in an attempt to help him. There was another boater also moving into position for rescue. I was shouting to them to give me clearance so I could arrive on the side of Mike’s boat where he had raised his arm. As I closed the distance between Mike and myself, at a distance of about ten feet, I saw Mike raise his head out of the water and get a breath of air and I yelled “boat”. Mike went back under and then quickly raised his right arm out of the water signaling for a boat assisted rescue. 

 

“I rapidly pulled in close to, and parallel to Mike on his inverted left side. As I reached for him with my right hand he grabbed my boat he raised his head and shoulders onto my forward deck. He came up out of the water with a large sucking intake of air, making eye contact with me at the same time. He was at the extreme end of his endurance, but had the strength to help himself up, and hold on. As I had held Mike tightly with both hands, the other boater came up on my left side and reached across my boat to grab Mike’s PFD. Mike was gasping for breath, and we were drifting with the current in a very stable condition. I looked at Mike’s skirt for the grab loop but it was not visible; apparently it had been inadvertently folded under the spray skirt where Mike could not reach it. 

 

“The rescue should have been over now, since the boats were rafted together, Mike was hanging onto my boat and catching his breath, and I had a strong grip on him. But the worst was yet to come. During the boat rescue the doctor had been in the water floating near Mike’s boat. As we were drifting side by side, the doctor swam between our two boats, pulled his river knife, and slashed into Mike’s spray skirt in the area of his legs. This knife action cut into Mike’s right thigh, causing a deep and ugly laceration which (may have) severed Mike’s femoral artery. Mike screamed, “My God, you’ve cut me”, and writhed in his boat from his pain. He wrenched himself from my grip, and I had to let go to exit my boat to get to Mike’s leg, which was pumping large, pulsing streams of blood onto me, the boat and t

 

“Mike was incapacitated from his wound almost immediately. Attempting to stop the blood flow, hold his head clear of the water, and gain purchase on the slippery rocks we were drifting past was very difficult. As the doctor held Mike’s head we pulled Mike from his boat up onto some mid-stream rocks. I used my fist to put pressure directly on his wound. My fist and then hands continued to be displaced from Mike’s wound as we lifted him out of the water, and he was losing quantities of blood. As we got Mike placed higher on the rocks I was still holding his thigh with both hands. Mike was still talking, but more and more slowly. The doctor moved towards me and stated that he was a doctor, and said “let me in there”, meaning for me to give my position on Mike’s leg to him, which I did. 

Emergency help was called, but it was 20 to 30 minutes before Mike was finally placed into the ambulance. We administered CPR to Mike on the river, and during transport to the ambulance. A drive-by M.D. attended to Mike in the ambulance..” 

 

Here is an account of the rescue by Greatful Ed, posting to rec.boats.paddle 

 

“I wanted to write to you about the Mike's death for a couple of  reasons.  For good or for ill, I helped work on him out there on the  middle of the river. My concern here is to set the record straight about this tragic situation.  I've also find writing very therapeutic.  

 

“The closing weekend of the 1997 season on the Ocoee was November 1st and 2nd,  and I had planned to paddle it on Saturday. When I arrived, at around 2:00 p.m., the weather was still  sunny  and warm.  I made a quick run because of increasing clouds and dropping  temperatures, and I was off the river at about 3:30 p.m. 

I hitched a ride up to the put-in, but as our car passed the shoals about 1/4  mile below Double Trouble a guy ran out into the road and flagged down our car. He said that someone was hurt in the middle of the river, and asked to use a cell phone. I used to be a volunteer firefighter and First Responder for a department outside Chattanooga, so I jumped out of the car, scrambled  down to the riverside, borrowed a boat, and ferried out to a rock ledge in the middle of the shoals.  When I got there a  couple of  rescuers were beginning to work on Mike. One of them, thank God, was a doctor.  

 

When I got there three or  four people were dragging him out of the water and onto a small rock ledge. They were trying to control the bleeding. Mike, although confused and in pain, was responsive when I got there,. The doctor was holding compression on Mike's leg wound, which was generally keeping the bleeding under control. At his direction we made Mike as comfortable as possible with our PFDs and improvised a tourniquet. I wound up holding pressure on Mike's femoral artery at his  groin while someone else cut webbing for the tourniquet.  We applied the tourniquet and continued the femoral pressure and the direct pressure on the wound.  Although the blood was mixed with water, it didn't seem to be  arterial. It  was pretty dark in color, mixed with a lot of fluid, typical of deep tissue injury. The doctor said he didn't think the femoral artery had been hit. As I held pressure and later held tension on the tourniquet, I checked out Mike's head wound, and it looked like he had slammed his head. He had a lump on his left temple the size of a fifty-cent piece which projected perhaps a half-inch. It was an ugly shade of purple.  It was just  exactly in the spot exposed if you're letting your chin strap get loose and your helmet ride back.  I checked his pupil dilation, and while his  pupils seemed wide to me, they also seemed equally dilated.  

 

“While we were working on Mike we kept talking to him. We were telling him that he'd be OK, saying his name, trying to get him to talk back to us. At first  he was responsive: he answered questions, reached out to hold our hands, and complained of discomfort.  But as time wore on he began slipping. He complained of the cold, his tight clothing, and his inability to breathe. "I can't see," he kept saying. We tried to sit him up in order to make his breathing easier. I was sitting on the rock with my arms around him and his head laid back on my  shoulder. But he only got worse. He eventually quit talking and became mostly unresponsive.  

 

“It was clear to us that we might save Mike from blood loss only to lose him to shock, so at the doctor's direction we moved him from the small rock ledge to a larger one nearby.  Some of us had to wade through water to get there, and we had to careful not to drop Mike. He was a pretty big guy, all wet and slippery. Park rangers arrived at the road across the river from. We got Mike laid out flat with legs elevated. While the doctor continued to maintain pressure on  the leg wound we began to demand blankets, fleece, jackets, and anything else we could get to try to keep Mike warm. There wasn't much available except PFDs. Everyone was soaked and a cold rain had begun to fall.  

 

“Right about this time a paramedic who had been out paddling joined  us on the rock.  He was a big help. He and the doctor  kept  checking Mike's breathing and pulse. Finally, someone arrived with a spine board and a cervical collar, and we got Mike strapped onto the board. As Mike lapsed into unconsciousness, the doctor quickly turned management of  the wound over to a bystander and crouched by Mike's head. "Don't do this, Mike, Don't do this." he repeated. Mike's breathing slowed, then  stopped. The doctor and the paramedic began CPR. A man with a bullhorn on the shore told us that a raft at Double Suck would paddle down to us and ferry Mike across.  

 

Mike began to vomit, and they had to stop CPR to clear his airway. Since he was on the backboard, it wasn't difficult to turn him onto his side so that the doctor could sweep his airway clear. We had to do this two or three times. Someone arrived with a rescue basket, which is like a really long, shallow, plastic bathtub. We lifted Mike into the rescue basket and strapped him in while the doctor and the paramedic continued to administer CPR. The raft arrived, and we lifted Mike in. The doctor  jumped in and continued chest compressions.  I watched from the rock as the raft ferried him across the river and he was lifted up the rockpile onto the road. Paramedics rushed Mike into the back of the ambulance and began working to stabilize him.  

 

“The raft came back over to the rock, and I hitched a ride back over to the shore. I noticed that the ambulance was rocking back and forth, which meant that the paramedics were administering chest compressions. And although I didn't check my watch, they must have worked on him for twenty or more minutes before they took off. They reported on the news that Mike Reisman died of blood loss. I don't believe that, although we'll never know for sure.  The family has declined to have an autopsy conducted. I think only one thing killed Mike: an utter lack of proper equipment to treat shock at an  isolated scene. We had the training, we had the people, but that wasn’t enough.” 

 

SOURCE: Tom Parson and Greatful Ed, posting to rec.boats.paddle

 

ANALYSIS: (Walbridge) There were six factors leading up to the accident. The absence of one of them might have prevented the fatality. They are: 

 

1. Lack of practice by Reisman, which resulted in too many strength-sapping swims. If you know you are going to swim a lot, carry and wear extra protective gear and be ready to exit the river if necessary. 

 

2. Hypothermia, which impairs physical strength, balance and reflexes, contributed to the final capsizing. It also may have impaired judgement; perhaps a more aware person would have put on the paddle jacket or left the river. A wetsuit or even a paddle jacket could have kept Reisman warm enough to avoid trouble. In the off season you should carry one extra layer to use if the weather changes. 

 

3. A blow to the head, which, even if it was not serious in a long-term way, stunned Reisman and made him less able to exit his boat. It is possible he sustained a fatal head injury. Helmet fit was probably poor; this is something that can be checked regularly. 

 

4. A tight sprayskirt, improperly attached to the boat, which trapped Reisman and made a wet exit almost impossible. I recommend that paddlers practice releasing their sprayskirt by grabbing a handful of deck and pulling, just in case. Gear should be tested before it is used. A too-tight sprayskirt can be loosened by putting it on the boat and leaving it in place for 2-7 days. 

 

5. An ill-considered decision to use a knife without checking the position of Reisman’s body. This action caused serious injury, and violated a basic rule of rescue: that no unnecessary harm be done to your victim. When using a knife in an emergency, do not cut blindly. Instead, use your free hand to feel ahead of the cutting edge. 

 

6. Severe shock, caused by a combination of items 2, 3, and 5. I suspect this was the true cause of death. 

 

7. Reisman received excellent first aid, but his body had been through more trauma than it could stand. 

 

This is the story of the death of Mike Reisman just below Double Trouble on the Ocoee on November 1, 1997.

 

I wanted to write to you about the death of Mike's death for a couple of reasons. For good or for ill, I helped work on Mike out there on the middle of the river, and my main concern here is setting the record straight about what was a very wierd and tragic situation. I've also found writing to be a very theraputic pastime... and given the fact that I'm still a little bit freaked out about the whole thing, I need this.

 

Closing weekend of the 1997 season on the Ocoee was November first and second, and I had planned to paddle it for the last time this season on November first. When I arrived, at something like 2:00, the weather was still sunny and warm. I made a fairly quick run because of increasing clouds and dropping temperatures, and I was off the river at approximately 3:30.

 

I hitched a ride up to the putin, but as our car passed the shoals about 1/4 mile below Double Trouble (if memory serves...I don't know the name of the shoals and things were a little fast and strange for me to be giving too much thought to landmarks), a guy ran out into the road and flagged down our car. He said that a guy was hurt in the middle of the river, and asked for a cell phone.

 

I used to be a volunteer firefighter and First Responder for a department right outside Chattanooga, and while I've let my certifications lapse, sometimes small help is better than none. So I jumped out of the car, scrambled down the rockpile to the riverside, borrowed a boat, and ferried out into to the rock ledge in the middle of the shoals. When I got there, a couple of rescuers were just beginning to work on Mike. One of them, thank God, was a doctor...and I'll write more about him in just a second.

 

They said that Mike had been ferrying across the shoals and had gotten flipped...and that while he was underwater he had taken a blow to the head which either knocked him unconscious or rendered him otherwise helpless. If I remember right, they said he was underwater for sixty seconds or so. The doctor reached Mike's boat and tried to flip it upright but was unable to, and was also unable to pop Mike's spray skirt. He said that Mike had left the grab loop tucked inside.

 

So the doctor did the next thing he could think of, which was to unsheath his PFD knife and to cut across the lap of the spray skirt. By doing so he was able to pop the skirt and get Mike out of the boat, but this was when things went wildly wrong...because the doctor cut too deeply and opened a long, deep gash high up on the inside of Mike's right thigh.

 

And that was pretty much the situation when I first got there...three or four people were dragging him out of the water and onto a small rock ledge, and they were trying to control the bleeding.

 

Mike was responsive when I got there, although it was obvious that he was confused and in pain. The doctor was holding compression on Mike's leg wound, which was generally keeping the bleeding under control, and at his direction we made Mike as comfortable as possible with our PFDs and began to improvise a tourniquet. I wound up holding pressure on Mike's femoral artery at his groin while someone else cut webbing for the tourniquet. We applied the tourniquet and continued the femoral pressure and the direct pressure on the wound. Although the blood was mixed with water, it didn't seem to be arterial...it was pretty dark in color and was mixed with a lot of fluid that looked typical of deep tissue injury. The doctor said he didn't think the femoral artery had been hit.

 

As I held pressure (and then held tension on the tourniquet), I checked out Mike's head wound, and it looked like he had slammed his head pretty well...he had a lump on his left temple the size of a fifty-cent piece which projected perhaps a half-inch and was an ugly shade of purple. It was just exactly in that spot which is all too easy to expose if you're letting your chin strap ride a little loosely. I checked his pupil dilation, and while his pupils seemed wide to me, they also seemed equally dilated.

 

While we were working on Mike we kept talking to him...we were telling him that he'd be OK, we were saying his name, and we were trying to get him to talk back to us. He would occasionally screw up his face in pain. At first he was responsive to us...he answered questions, he reached out to hold our hands, and he complained of discomfort. But as time wore on (and the numbers of paddlers surround us grew), he began slipping. He complained of the cold, his tight clothing, and his inability to breathe. "I can't see," he kept saying. We tried to sit him up in order to make his breathing easier...I was sitting on the rock with my arms around him and his head laid back on my shoulder...but he only got worse...he quit talking and became mostly unresponsive to us.

 

It was clear to us that we might save Mike from blood loss only to lose him to shock, so at the doctor's direction we moved him from the small rock ledge to a larger one which was close by. Some of us had to wade through water to get there, and we had to be painstakingly careful not to drop Mike, because he was a pretty big guy and he was wet and slippery.

 

Park rangers were arriving at the road across the river from us as we were moving Mike. We got him laid out flat (with legs elevated...I was holding up his left one), and while the doctor continued to maintain pressure on the leg wound we began to demand blankets, fleece, jackets, and anything else we could get to try to keep Mike warm. There wasn't much of anything to use except PFDs...everyone was soaked and a cold rain had begun to fall.

 

Right about this time a paramedic named Tiger who had been out paddling joined us on the rock and went to work. He was a big help. He and the doctor kept checking Mike's breathing and pulse. Finally, someone arrived with a spine board and a cervical collar, and we got Mike strapped onto the board. Tiger put the c-collar on him.

 

Mike lapsed into unconsciousness, and the doctor quickly turned management of the wound over to a bystander and crouched by Mike's head. "Don't do this, Mike...Don't do this..." he repeated. Mike's breathing slowed, and then stopped, and the doctor and Tiger began artifical respiration and chest compressions.

 

At this point, somebody with a bullhorn on the shore told us that a raft was at Double Suck, and that the raft had been directed to hurry to where we were and ferry Mike across.

 

Mike began to vomit, and the doctor and Tiger were having to stop CPR. Since he was on the backboard, it wasn't too difficult to turn him onto his side so that the doctor could sweep his airway clear. We had to do this two or three times.

Someone arrived with a rescue basket, which is like a really long, shallow, plastic bathtub. We lifted Mike into the rescue basket and strapped him in while the doctor and Tiger continued to administer CPR. Right about then the raft arrived. As they lined up by the rock, we lifted Mike in, and the doctor jumped in and continued chest compressions. I watched from the rock as the raft ferried him across the river and as the spectators helped lift the rescue basket up the rockpile to the road. Paramedics rushed Mike into the the back of the ambulance and immediately began working to try to stabilize him.

 

The raft came back across to the rock, and I hitched a ride back over to the shore. After I climbed the rockpile, I asked one of the responding firemen for some alcohol foam to sterilize my hands with, and then I waited by the ambulance. I noticed that the ambulance was rocking back and forth, which meant that the paramedics were administering chest compressions inside. And although I didn't check my watch, they must have worked on him for twenty or more minutes before they took off.\
We stood around on the scene for a while. Lance, some of the other park rangers, the state troopers, and couple of the paramedics collected some information. I gave them my name, number, and address.

 

The doctor felt like shit. He told me he was mad at himself, and although the normal cliches like "You did the best you could", "You did everything right", and "That was a terrible scene" were all close at hand, all I could do was squeeze his shoulder and shake my head. I watched as he rode away with one of the park rangers.

 

And so now they're reporting on the news that Mike Reisman died of blood loss resulting from a severed femoral artery.

 

I don't believe that, although we'll never know for sure. I'm told the family has apparently declined to have an autopsy conducted. I think only one thing killed Mike...the utter lack of proper equipment to treat shock on an isolated scene. We had the training, we had the people, we had (barely) enough room to work. But none of that was enough.

 

I've seen a lot of people in shock, and they always react differently. Some act crazy, some mumble to themselves, some shake, some wander around like zombies. Some simply go to sleep.

 

Like Mike.

 


That's the end of this story. I'm sorry.

 

Ed Ditto