Accident Database

Report ID# 50191

  • Caught in Low Head Dam Hydraulic
  • Does not Apply
  • Inadequate Equipment
  • Inexperience

Accident Description

Harrisburg firefighters try to rescue kayakers, end up needing rescue themselves

Posted Jul 8, 2019

By Becky Metrick,

Rescue crews out practicing night boat training on the Susquehanna River went to the aid of kayakers who got too close to the dangerous Dock Street dam and ended up needing to be rescued themselves.

Harrisburg Fire Department Deputy Chief Mike Souder said the two kayakers were in the sights of the rescue crews, who yelled warnings to them to turn away from the Dock Street dam, a lowhead dam known in the area as a “drowning machine.”

The kayakers were ahead of them, went past a set of warning buoys and ended up going over the dam. The rescue crew of three people went over shortly after.

A “mayday” went out, and emergency responders from all over Dauphin and Cumberland counties responded. They were able to rescue all five people, Souder said. While Harrisburg River Rescue got the firefighters out of the river, crews from other counties got the kayakers.“The important thing here is: well trained, very reactive to the problems. This is the kind of thing that we know can happen. That’s what makes our job very dangerous. And we’re not immune to that,” Souder said. “When they do happen, it takes everyone to come together to be successful.”

Souder did not have updates on the condition of those who were rescued, and whether they suffered injuries, but he said he had spoken with all of them. Everyone was shaken by what happened.

“You’re in the dam, you get beat around. So you get banged and beat up a good bit,” Souder said. Crews already being on scene were probably why everyone is alive tonight, he said.

“I think we had a lot of lives saved tonight, by everyone,” Souder said. “Unfortunately the three firefighters that were in the boat, they would have rather had nobody go over, but it happens. I believe it shows the mentality of knowing what their role is. They will do whatever needs to be done.”

Souder suggested that people, whether on the river or anywhere else, need to educate themselves on what they need to do to stay safe.

“Do the right thing. You know what the right thing is to do. So just do it,” Souder said. “Be careful. If you’re going to come out to the river, take a few minutes to learn about the river.”

The dangerous low-head dam, known as a “drowning machine,” has claimed at least 30 lives in accidents dating back to 1935. Low-head dams often don’t look dangerous, but the water flowing over the top of the dam creates a powerful hydraulics under the surface that can be nearly inescapable for anyone who is thrown into the water, ever for strong swimmers wearing life vests.

Join AW and support river stewardship nationwide!