Accident Database

Report ID# 473

  • Equipment Trap
  • Does not Apply
  • Cold Water
  • Inexperience
  • High Water
  • One Boat Trip

Accident Description

On January 9, 1998 the French Broad , normally a Class III run, was flooding. River levels were in excess of 40,000 cfs, creating huge (18 foot) waves in a freight-train current. Nonetheless, Rusty Watts and Ernie Gosnell put in above Hot Springs, NC at

5:30 p.m.

Both men had apparently been down the river at summer levels in their 12 foot raft. They both tied themselves to their boat; Watts by his PFD and Gosnell by his wrist. When the boat flipped, Watts ' PFD was pulled off.

Gosnell swam to a tree in mid-river where he sat for many hours. He was spotted by a passing train and extricated during the night by an Air Force PAVE LOW helicopter equipped with night vision devices. The chopper was in the area on other flood-related business. Gosnell and his boat were located the next day, pinned on a strainer on an island below Stackhouse. Because of high water, the recovery of his body was postponed for 24 hours, then performed by a group of local raft guides.

SOURCE: Slim Ray, Asheville Citizen Times


1. A little knowledge can be dangerous. Although the pair had run the river before, they did not appreciate how much the floodwaters would change the run.

2. Putting in an hour before sunset is clearly unwise, leaving no margin for error. The survivor was lucky that an Air Force helicopter with night vision gear was in the area!

3. Tying yourself into a boat may seem reasonable to those not familiar with river running, but in fast current this procedure can snag a person and hold him underwater.

4. This incident prompted a proposal from local government to close the river at high flows. Without a huge police presence this rule would be hard to enforce; with folks this ignorant it’s unlikely that any measure would have prevented the accident.




Slim Ray reported the first fatal accident of the new year on January 8, 1998. It occurred when the French Broad flooded after the area received 5-16” of rain. Ernie Gosnell and Rusty Watts bought a raft this past summer and had apparently rafted the stretch of river near Marshall a number of times. This time they tied themselves into their boat so they wouldn’t be thrown out by the turbulent water. After the raft flipped, the pair was in serious trouble. Watts struggled free and swam to a tree where he remained for several hours until plucked out by an Air Force helicopter. The raft was finally spotted in a mid-stream debris pile. Mr. Gosnell was visible, but rescue crews waited until the water went down enough to safely access the site.

Two local men, Rusty Watts and Ernie Gosnell, both in their 20s entered the French Broad at Barnard about 5:30pm on Jan 9th. At the time the river was running in excess of 40,000 cfs. The two were in a 12' Riken and were said to have done a couple of trips down the river the previous summer. The two tied themselves to the raft; Watts to his pfd and Gosnell to his wrist. The raft flipped shortly after getting on the river. Watt's pfd was pulled off and he climbed a tree in the river. He was spotted by a passing train. Gosnell remained missing for the rest of the night. By now it was dark and rescuers, who included paddlers and Ron West of FB Rafting, declined to do a rescue of Watts at the time because of the danger. Eventually he was rescued by an Air Force special operations helicopter that happened to be in the area. The PAVE LOW was equipped with night vision devices and lowered a jungle penetrator to Watts in total darkness, pulling him to safety. Gosnell was located the next day on an island below Stackhouse. He'd gone around one side of a tree, the raft around the other. Because of the high water rescuers were not able to recover his body until the following day. The recovery crew was made up mostly of local paddlers and raft guides lead by Tom Butler, who also is an Asheville City fireman. The cause of the accident is plain: high water, inexperience, tying themselves to the raft, and putting on just before dark. Slim

On January 9, the French Broad was flooding and river levels were in excess of 40,000 cfs. Nonetheless, Ernie Gosnell and a friend attempted the run above Hot Springs, NC. A report forwarded to American Whitewater stated that both men had tied themselves into their boat; Watts by his PFD and Gosnell by his wrist. When the boat flipped, the friends PFD was pulled off. He swam to a tree where he sat for hours until pulled off by an Air Force helicopter that had other flood-related business in the area. Gosnell and his boat were located the next day, pinned on a strainer. Because of high water the rescue was postponed 24 hours. This incident prompted a proposal to close the river at high flows. Local boaters were working with government officials to prevent this.

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