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Accident Database: Accident #5

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Date: 1979-10-21
Victim: Rick Bernard
Victim Age: 20
River: Chattooga
Reach #:
Section: Section 4 - Route 76 Bridge to Tugaloo Lake Boat Ramp
Location: Jawbone
Gauge: 1.55
River Difficulty: IV+
Accident Cause: Pinned in Boat against Rock or Sieve
Cause Code(s): Pinned in Boat against Rock or Sieve
Injury Type(s): Does not Apply
Factors Code(s): Other
Age: 20
Experienced/Inexperienced: Expert Paddler
Private/Commercial: Commercial
Boat Type: Whitewater Kayak
Group Info:
Other Victim Names:
Detailed Description:

Description: The Chatooga River forms the northern part of the South Carolina - Georgia Border. It is one of the most famous runs in the Southeast. Section IV consists of six miles of class II-V rapids, conculding with the difficult "five falls" section. Jawbone is one of the longest rapids on the river, and one of the most challenging. The river narrows significantly and drops over several diagonal ledges. It contains several known dangerous undercuts. The day was clear and sunny, with the temperature in the 70's Water level was a moderate 1.5' at the Route 76 Bridge.

The accident occurred at about 2:15  PM. The raft guides normally use the safety boater's run through the rapid as a demonstration for their crews, so most guests and guides were watching as Rick ran the rapids, ferrying and eddy hopping from side to side. He was an expert boater who had done this many times during his five-month tenure at NOC. Paddling hard for a small eddy on river right upstream of a huge overhanging boulder, he caught the low part of the eddy and began to slip backwards. Acting calm and professional, he glanced over his shoulder. As he did, the stern of his boat slipped under the overhanging rock. Then his bow swung out and his boat washed under the rock and he disapeared under the overhang. Later the group found that his stern had pinned on a submerged log, folded about 3 feet from the cockpit, and folded. Rick was trapped facing downstream, with the water washing over his back. He was so far under the rock that it was difficult to see him. 

As the group waited for him to wash under and roll up, but instead his hands come to the surface, groping. A guide managed to throw a rope into his hand. He grabbed it, but could not hold on.  The rope went slack, and Rick's life vest, paddle jacket, and wetsuit vest washed out from under the overhang.

Rescue attempts began at once, but did not work because the boat was in very powerful current and very almost impossible to reach. Tachniques included trying to pry the boat off the rock with a paddle, trying to reach the grab loop, and trying to run a line underneath the boat. At one point someone could touch the cockpit rim. The sprayskirt was still in place, anbd they pulled it off to see if this would help. It didn't.  After five hours they were able to get a rope around the kayak. Six men pulled on the rope from across the river, and the boat finally came loose. Rick Bernard was still inside.

From a report submitted by John Burton, director of NOC:

Summary: On October 21, 1979 during an otherwise smooth and unremarkable commercial rafting trip conducted by the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) Rick Burnard, the safety boater on this trip, drowned in Jawbone Rapid of Section IV of the Chatooga. He and his kayak were pinned underwater, beneath  an overhanging rock, after the stern caught on a submerged log. Immeiate rescue attempts by hand and rope failed; the boat could not be reached due to the overhanging shape of the rock and the strong currents.  The kayak was not released until six hours later, when six men were able to work a rope underneath it and pull it off.

This accident was very significant. It inspired Les Bechdel, Slim Ray, and the entire NOC staff to plan strategies for dealing with a number of common river emergencies. This was the first time anyone had done anything like this and the science of swiftwater rescue really began here. Later the pair wrote the landmark book River Rescue together and started teaching swiftwater rescue courses at NOC the following spring.

Report Status: Reported

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