Accident Database

Report ID# 486

  • Foot Entrapment
  • Near Drowning
  • Physical Trauma
  • Other

Accident Description

Sunday, May 24th, I held one end of a tag-line in a rescue effort at Big Nasty on the Cheat River. This was without question the closest call I have ever witnessed; the victim was foot-entrapped in the Middle of Big Nasty, probably the steepest and swiftest drop in the Cheat Canyon. He had fallen out of a Thrillseeker duckie near the top of the rapid, and the first-down members of his party went chasing the raft and the paddle without realizing that the paddler was stuck almost exactly midriver and almost exactly halfway down the rapid; the hardest possible place to reach. He was breathing in an intermittent air pocket when he was able to get his head high enough, though at one point he went head-down for close to half a minute, and I though it was all over.

People from both sides of the river got ropes to him, but, pulling from the sides, were unable to drag him upriver from the slot he was jammed into. Several attempts to throw a rope across the river failed, but after perhaps five minutes, someone from his group tied two throw ropes together and a kayaker from his group ferried an end across above the rapid. I had been standing behind Steve Ingalls of Cleveland's Keelhaulers, holding the shoulders of his PFD while he got a rope to the victim from river left, when a runner brought the river-left end of the tagline to me. Byron Funnell, from Ft. Wayne Indiana, and Eric Friedensen from Virginia had the other end of the line, but none of us were able to flick it up and over the victim's head, when we tried to float it down it seemed to hang on the back of his helmet, and he was not aware of its presence to bring it over his head and under his arms.

The victim had been entrapped between five and ten minutes, and we were getting desperate on the banks, when he evidently wrenched his foot free, snagged briefly in the tagline until Eric released his end, and floated through the Big Nasty hole to where there were a number of boats waiting to retrieve him. Not long afterwards a Canoe Cruisers' Ass'n of WashDC group came through with Dr. Beth Koller of Rockville, MD, who attended to the patient. I collected my throw bag and hiked down to point out to Kenny Sanders of the Phila. Canoe Club, who appeared to me to be the leader of the patient's group, that there was a backboard strapped to a tree across the river, which would simplify carrying the patient out; that the members of the hiking club having lunch on river-right knew the trail and would probably take shifts as porters; and that it would probably be good to send a runner ahead to have rescue personnel meet the extraction team and take over carrying the patient.

I learned that the victim/patient was a reporter for the Philly paper who had contacted the Phila. Canoe Club and asked to be taken on a paddling trip so that he could write a story about the thrill of running whitewater. I would appreciate it if anyone from Philly who reads NPMB would be alert for any article on this incident, and transcribe it post the transcription, and I would appreciate hearing additional details from any r.b.p readers in the Philly CC.

Byron is an r.b.p reader, and I am sure he will fill in some more information on what he saw and did on river right; I know at least one Philly CC boater, an open boater whom I have heard called "Big Jim" was there with Byron, Eric, and Dave Shuckel. The only people on the tagline on river left were Steve and me and Jim Gross of the Monocacy Canoe Club.

My group reached the takeout just in time for our 6:00 PM shuttle, and I told Glen's wife Donna Miller that Steve Ingalls' party might be late because of the rescue. She waited with one of Glen's trucks until they arrived at almost 7:00; it seems that Steve and his group had stayed to help get the patient up across the river and up the right bank to the trail. Several Keelhaulers read r.b.p, so I hope some of them are able to fill in Steve's part of the story.

This was 'way scary, people. I've never seen such a close one; this guy probably only had a minute or two left when he somehow got free. Jim is convinced that he freed himself by virtue of having our rope to hang onto; I am less convinced, because I didn't feel enough pressure on my end of the tagline (I had the position nearest the water), though it's possible that the river-right crowd were pulling him upriver -- Byron will have to elucidate that point.

Richard Hopley, concise and to the point, as always.

OC-1;Posted to Rec.Boats.Paddle (with names removed):\





May 31, 1998 

Publication: Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)  

Trapped for five minutes by the merciless rapids, unable to will my head above the water for another snatch of air, I was ready to die. I said my good-byes. For a moment, there was relief. And then, there was absolute rage. I was spending the long Memorial Day weekend with members of the Lehigh Valley Canoe Club and the Philadelphia Canoe Club. This day's destination was the Cheat River, a gorge in a wild corner of West Virginia just south of Pennsylvania and west of Maryland.

The quaint names of the canoe clubs don't hint at the skill of these paddlers, or their expansive sense of adventure. Many have conquered the fiercest rivers of the world.

My own skills as a boater are vastly more meager. As The Inquirer's outdoors writer, I was in a kayak - an inflatable one, for safety's sake - for the first time in my 49 years. By the second day, I thought I was getting the hang of it. So did my companions, who praised my progress.

They know their sport is dangerous; their talk is laced with gallows humor. One guy looked at my craft, smiled, and called it ``a death trap.''

But their knowledge gives them an acute respect for the risks of pell-mell whitewater. To minimize mishaps, I always was placed in the middle of the pack, following the lines of the leaders, trailed by the others - all well-versed in rescue techniques.

All went well until we hit a C-shaped bow in the river - a murderous mix of constricted shorelines, funneling waters, and huge boulders - aptly named Big Nasty.

My craft nudged an underwater shelf at the head of the rapids and hung there for perhaps 10 seconds. Then I was swallowed by waves and tossed over the side.

I did as I had been told: I kept my feet ahead of me and my head upstream. Then, it all went wrong. Somehow, my right foot glanced off the top of a rock and slipped into a crevice, locking my leg from the knee down as tight as a plaster cast while the punishing waves behind me slammed my head and body forward into the water.

I couldn't move. And there was nothing I could push against to free myself.

My companions had seen situations like this. They scrambled to help. But, as they told me later, they feared the odds were grave.

As surely as my leg was entombed in the rock, as surely as the power of three-foot crests kept burying my head underwater, many thought they were going to watch me die.

* Our group had dined Saturday night at Ken Sanders' house outside Ohiopyle, Pa., a premier canoeing destination an hour southeast of Pittsburgh. Sanders, a 50-year-old motorcycle and kayak designer, is literally a giant in the sport.

In a kayak, this 300-pound-plus man dances downstream. On land, he makes his 80 wooded acres a free campground to any whitewater enthusiast who chances by.

That morning and afternoon he had accompanied our group down the lower portion of the Youghiogheny River.

The group included Greg Wojcik, 43, of Boyertown, and his canoeing partner, Carol Monahan, 50ish, of Pennsburg. He is legally deaf; she is legally blind. Later this summer they plan to canoe 213 miles of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. He'll be in front, reading the river. She can see well enough to read his body language.

There was Mike Campanelli, 44, of Kutztown, who plans to make that Grand Canyon trip, too. In a solo canoe.

There was Edward Applebaum, 45, a psychiatrist from Cherry Hill. Elaine Poinsett, 38, a mortgage banker from Cranford, N.J., and her boyfriend, Jim Keresztenyi, 50, a pipefitter and the first man to descend the violent Futaleufu River in southern Chile - not in a kayak, but in a canoe.

What they share is the rush of a chess match played at warp speed. Negotiating whitewater requires quick responses, but also the ability to plot several moves in advance, always honing skills at ever-more-difficult levels.

On the Yough (pronounced Yock) that day, I gave them a couple of laughs by capsizing twice.

By day's end, though, I had improved enough to gamble going down a stretch known as Killer Falls. I even went backward, holding hands with Poinsett.

``You have to scream when you do this to appease the river gods,'' she said. ``I may not be the best paddler out here, but I'm the best screamer.''

At night, the table talk turned, as it usually does, to tragedies witnessed and experienced.

``If you boat long enough, you'll have a near-death experience,'' said Applebaum, who has had his own close calls. ``But there are no revelations. The clouds don't part. At the time you only have one line of thought: to survive.

``So why do it? Heck, some people are so safety conscious that they'll scout the level of the bathtub before they step into it.''

This is a relentlessly cheerful bunch. Tom Palmer, 49, a hay and vegetable farmer from Long Valley, N.J., advanced the preposterous theory that rescues should be judged only on entertainment value.

A rejoinder came at once from Kia Jacobson, 34, of Takoma Park, Md.

``You know what I find unbelievable about that?'' she asked. ``Whoever heard of a kayaking farmer?''

Scott Macindoe, 46, of Quakertown, the owner of a printing company and president of the Lehigh Valley Canoe Club, joined in the gaiety.

``It's the people in this sport that make it so much more than it already is,'' Macindoe said.

These were some of the people who would save my life.

* To get to the takeout point on the Cheat was no walk in the woods.

We dropped off the shuttle vehicles at the end of a three-mile, one-lane dirt road sliced into the side of a mountain, in a part of the world that thinks guardrails are for sissies.

We put in 12 miles upriver, at Albright. Sunday morning was muggy. As we set off, we splashed water on our wet suits.

Heading downstream, we passed a corroded railroad bridge that gives up halfway across the river. ``Wild Wonderful . . .'' read the half that's still standing. The rest of the slogan, ``. . . West Virginia,'' is long gone.

The Cheat is a rougher river than the lower Yough. But our first hour's ride was leisurely. We logged three miles and eased through four sets of minor rapids. Then came the first of the named rapids.

Big Nasty.

I watched a half-dozen of the group draw the line I was to copy. They stayed slightly to the left when they entered the chute - just as I would do. Except that I missed by a yard.

Instead of rocketing through, I hinged on the underwater shelf and flew overboard. I floated feetfirst midway through the 60-yard chute, until my foot and leg snagged in that underwater vise.

This is known as foot entrapment, and it is one of the leading causes of whitewater death.

I felt my inner thighs rip as if I were being drawn and quartered. The irresistible force of the water was tearing at my legs. My right leg was immobilized, possibly broken. My left leg, the muscle cut loose, was flapping like a flag in the wind.

The water would have been shoulder-blade high, if I were standing erect. But I was pitched forward, my upper body lying flat under the water's surface. It took all the strength in my lower back to push my head above the water line. I felt a sledgehammer blow; my back was wrenched. I kept my head up, but my back was all but paralyzed.

With my right hand, I could feel the rock that snared me. But the rock was too low, too slick, too curved to push off against. At best, I could find only enough purchase for two fingers. I held that position for maybe 45 seconds, until the water beat me down again.

Submerged once more, I managed with my left hand to retrieve and bend my dangling left leg, placing it parallel with the right leg in the hope of pushing off the rock. But that, too, was futile. The rock wasn't wide enough. There was nothing for the left foot to bite into. As the left leg shot away from me, I was drawn and quartered again.

Perhaps two minutes had passed.

A kayaker's helmet is designed for emergencies such as these. Water from behind rushes over the crown and the bill. Sometimes, if the kayaker's head is high enough, the flow creates an air pocket in front of the kayaker's face.

This was one of those times. I was able to steal a breath now and then, sometimes air, sometimes water.

But my strength was failing. Though I could not turn my head, from the corner of my right eye I could see ropes being thrown toward me. In the roar of the cascade, I could not hear the rescuers' yells.

Then, they say, I went under for a minute, able only to keep my right hand above the water so no one would lose sight of me. My calculations had turned frantic: Could I sever my leg to escape? I could think of no way to do it.

I managed to pop my head above the water again. By now, five minutes had passed. Then I went under for what I thought was the last time.

I gurgled. And I said good-bye to my wife, daughter and father.

I felt, for a moment, relief. Facedown in the water, I thought: So this is what it's like to die? I'm ready. I can fight no more.

Except that I could.

I remembered Applebaum, his telling me there would be no cosmic revelation. Just a simple thought. And this was mine:

I will not die facefirst in West Virginia.

* I poked my head above water one more time. It was time enough to see Campanelli careening by, swimming, desperately trying to maneuver into the tiny eddy that my head created, trying to hold there for an instant to help me push back.

He missed. If he had hit me, he would have snapped my leg like kindling.

Unknown to me, Poinsett, paddling 40 yards upstream, held one end of a rope in her mouth while a group of people on shore held onto the other end. She ferried across the Cheat to hand her end to people on the other side. The rope now spanned the river, dozens of people holding it as if in a tug-of-war. The rope drifted downstream and over my submerged head. Their plan was to tighten the slack and prop me up, creating what rescuers call a stabilization line.

All I saw, inches below the water, was a bit of yellow cord to my right. With my right hand still seeking a hold on the rock, I stretched my left hand across my body to grab the lifeline.

I had strength enough only to hook it with my index finger. From there I twisted it around my wrist two times, fearing I would lack the grip to hang on. I felt the rope tighten slightly.

No one can figure how or why my leg came free. But I felt the current sweep me downstream, where Sanders was in his kayak.

Barely conscious, I heard him say, ``You're going to make it. Grab my boat.''

I had been trapped for seven minutes. ``It was a million-in-one chance you got caught there,'' Sanders told me later. ``Of all my years in boating, I've only ever seen two people pinned that badly. One of them is not here.''

It took a team of roughly 30 people to carry me, hand over hand, up a 30-yard boulder embankment and then 200 yards over a rocky hillside. From there they carried me by wooden stretcher another two miles to waiting ambulance workers.

Poinsett squeezed my hand at the transfer point.

``You hung in there,'' she said. ``It was your bravery that kept all of us going.''

I hadn't strength for much, but I could feel her hands, their warmth, their softness.

There are so many, many people to thank for the rescue. My group did not know nearly all of them. Maybe those who are unknown to me now will read this. Maybe word will somehow get to them. Maybe I have to wait to thank them until we round the last bend and meet on the other shore.

The emergency-room doctor could find no broken bones. Nevertheless, it took days for me to get out of my own bed without help. It will take weeks for my back and legs to heal. I expect it will take longer for the nightmares to go away.

Just before the ambulance workers took me away, Tom Palmer, the kayaking farmer, tapped my chest.

``Remember what I said last night?'' he said. ``We had to save you. You weren't entertaining.''

My apologies, I like to think I said. Given the circumstances, it was the best I could do.

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