Accident Database

Report ID# 571

  • Swim into Strainer
  • Does not Apply
  • Cold Water
  • Darkness
  • High Water
  • One Boat Trip

Accident Description


Buffalo Creek near Pittsburgh, PA                                                                           

On December 31, 1990 one man died, but an 11-hour effort by almost 100 rescue workers saved his companion after the victim's canoe overturned in Buffalo Creek near Pittsburgh, Pa. Geoffrey Graham, 36, died before he could be pulled from the water. His friend, Carl Becker, 34, was in critical condition the next day at Allegheny General Hospital after being pulled from the river. Two rescue workers whose boat capsized during the rescue effort were treated and released.

"We all felt very helpless," said Bob McCafferty, a volunteer with the Sarver Fire Department. "I was 175 feet from the guy. I wanted to reach out and grab him to pull him in, but I was just helpless. You do all your training and you have all the fancy equipment and then all you can do is stand there."

Buffalo Creek, which is normally small and tame enough to wade across, overflowed during heavy rain, turning the surrounding woods into a roaring river.  Both victims were experienced canoeists who had run the river the previous week. Their canoe capsized yesterday afternoon near the High Level Bridge, where Route 28 crosses the creek. A passer-by spotted then about 2 p.m., standing in the rapids, clinging desperately to a tree. The two had initially planned to land earlier, but changed their minds. The survivor said later that trip was over too quickly and they wanted to make it last longer.

A friend running shuttle had waited downstream as four other canoes landed there.  He was talking with those canoeists when local firemen told him the men he was looking for were stranded among the trees in the flooded river upstream. He then tried to reach the site by following an abandoned railroad bed that ran along the creek, but found it impassable.


ichard Huth, a Freeport constable, was patrolling the railroad bed in his four wheel drive truck to check on flooding when he spotted the stranded canoeists. "I could see them, maybe seventy or eighty yards out. They were both standing up in the current hugging trees." He said his attempts to call to the pair were drowned out by the roar of the current. "This creek is usually two feet deep.  You can walk across it," he said.  "I think this is the worst flooding I've ever seen."

When rescue crews arrived between 2:30 and 3 p.m., they immediately sent for gasoline to run the generators for the powerful lights on the rescue trucks. Those would provide the only illumination on the canoeists and their rescuers through the long night to come. Rescue crews came from as far away as Indiana and Westmoreland counties, following the rutted and crumbling railroad bed to reach the scene.  Volunteers on ATV's shuttled rescuers back and forth to the main road during the night.

McCafferty was one of the first on the scene.  He said he could clearly see the men about 175 feet offshore, but a treacherous current ran through the trees, posing deadly obstacles to the assembled rescuers. The rescuers tried cutting down some of the trees in an attempt to clear a path to the men, but it didn't help.

Volunteers from the Freeport Fire Department then used a line gun to shoot a light line across the water to the stranded men.  One of them was able to catch it. Rescuers tied a strong rope to the line and the stranded men pulled it to them, then lashed themselves to nearby trees.

Eventually, Robert Negley, a diver from Citizen's Hose River Rescue in Natrona Heights, succeeded in forging through the rapids to within about 30 feet of the two men.  He showed them how to tie themselves together. He couldn't get any closer because there was wide open, rough rapids in between. Two other divers tried to get over and couldn't make it as far as Negley had.

Negley remained partially submerged in the water for hours, shouting encouragement to the stranded men.  Rescuers on the shore also shouted through bullhorns all night long, telling them to hold on, assuring them that boats were trying to reach them. "Negley is a real hero," McCafferty said.  "He was out there for three hours by himself.  He worked and worked and worked with the boat crews."

What happened next was not entirely clear. The rescuers were trying to pull the two individuals to shore when the current swept them downstream. The two victims were still tied to a lifeline and the current carried them into another tree. One died while the other continued to cling to life.

Back at the main rescue site, the river rescue team from Saltsburg tried to reach Becker by boat. They made it to within about 15 or 20 feet of him before their raft capsized. Negley helped the rescuers who had been thrown overboard to reach the trees near the shore, where they stood and held on. River rescue workers from Indiana then collected their colleagues from Saltsburg. The current was so strong that took three tries to get to them. The men were sent by ambulance to Allegheny Valley Hospital, where they were treated and released.

Next, the Greensburg and Indiana Fire Departments decided on a joint effort to reach the stranded men.  They took two boats out, each with a crew of two.  Working together they finally reached the men at about 1 AM, 11 hours after the initial capsizing! On the way back to shore the Greensburg crew capsized, but the Indiana crew was able to pick them up.

Becker was speaking until minutes before they rescued him, but unconscious when he was pulled into the boat. The rescue team began performing CPR on him immediately. The Sarver Volunteer Fire Department stood on the steep, muddy shore, hauling the ropes that pulled the stretcher basket up the last treacherous 20 feet to a waiting ambulance. When Becker reached the ambulance he was in cardiac arrest.

Source:  Ann Rodgers-Melnick, The Pittsburgh Press Newspaper

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