RESCUE ON THE POTOMAC
S-Turn Rapid near Washington, D.C.
Sunday, June 17, was one of those glorious summer days. We waited, Marie and 1, to paddle until late in the afternoon to miss the throngs of people sure to be enjoying the Potomac on such a warm sunny day. Sure enough, as we put our K-l's into the canal at Anglers Inn, a passing paddler told us how crowded the river had been all day.
By the time we reached S-Turn, it must have been 6 pm. As we were putting on, another paddler climbed over the rocks and headed up to O-Deck. It was something of a relief to be on the river when it was running a little below 4'. We have been whitewater kayaking only about a year, and it seemed that every time we got on the Potomac it looked like a different river, particularly when it had been over 5'6" just a couple of weeks earlier.
We passed S-Turn and paddled leisurely down to Rocky Island. To our Surprise, there were no other boats in sight. As we each tried a little surfing there, we heard some people up on the rocks on the Virginia side yelling down at us. At first, I thought they were some folks having a bit of wild fun. But they kept at it, even though we couldn't quite make out what they were saying.
Then I looked over to the Maryland side. A man was on top of the rocks rotating his hands over this head, as if swimming, and pointing down into the river. It hit me that someone must be in trouble in the river. I immediately took off downstream, toward the Maryland shore.
After paddling about 50-75 yards, I spotted what looked to be a red cushion or rag floating in the water. Ten yards more and a feeling of horror hit me: it was a woman in a red shirt floating face down in the current. Simultaneously with the horror came a rush of adrenaline, and I accelerated toward her. I yelled and waved back up stream for Marie to catch up with me.
When I reached the unconscious woman, she was not far from the Maryland shore, but still in the current between Rocky Island and Wet Bottom. I pulled at her shirt, then the waist of her blue jeans and lifted her head out of the water. I felt an awkward sense of helplessness with her blue jeans in one hand, a paddle in the other and little ability to move us toward shore. Marie yelled to the shore for someone to call an ambulance.
After 30 seconds or so, Marie arrived and pulled the women's arms and shoulders over the top of her Dancer, keeping her head out or the water. When Marie first saw the women's swollen face and her blue lips, she blurted out, "She's dead." Moments later, some gurgling sounds emerged from the women's mouth, and Marie reconsidered. Later, Marie told me how she remembered the passage in Bechdel and Ray's "River Rescue", which said the rescuer should provide the victim with positive encouragement, as much for the calming effect on the rescuer as on the victim. So Marie began to say encouraging things.
Even with two boats maneuvering it was still awkward. I tried as best I could to paddle in the direction of shore, but with one hand on the woman's jeans, I had very little power in my stroke. By this time we were about 15 feet from the rocks and just about out of the downstream current. Several people had scrambled down to the water line. I grabbed Marie's paddle and threw it to shore, while Marie used both hands to hold on to the woman, keeping her face on Marie's bow.
Then we shouted to the people on shore that if there was a strong swimmer among them, they could help pull us into shore since we were safely out of the current. A man did just that, grabbing Marie's front loop and pulling fiercely toward shore. I 'bulldozed' Marie's boat from behind until they were safely ashore.
The whole effort took several minutes. At that point, I heard people from the Virginia shore yelling something about another person in the water. I bolted downstream to have a look. Marie stayed in her boat as several men helped get the women ashore. Before leaving she made sure that one of them began to administer CPR. She admonished them not to stop their CPR efforts until help arrived, "No matter what."
Marie then followed me downstream. The two people who had originally alerted us to the woman directed Marie to a spot below Wet Bottom, where they thought they saw the man's white shirt surface. Marie went there, but saw only a small riffle of water over a rock. She proceeded slowly down the river, but neither of us saw any sign of another body.
We were both at the Difficult Run area when the helicopter began its search over the river, at least 15-30 minutes after we had come across the woman. We were still the only paddlers on that stretch of river. When we saw the helicopter begin to hover near Sandy Beach, we paddled back up to meet it. We figured that if they had seen the other body, we would be in a better position to do a rescue than they. It moved on by the time we got to the spot.
We chatted with a number of park police and rangers as the helicopter continued its overhead search. We learned from them that the woman had regained consciousness and appeared to be OK. Her brother, who had apparently jumped into the river to try and rescue her, was not. His body was found a week later.
1.It was much more difficult than we thought to rescue an unconscious person. They are not able to help in any way (grab on to a boat or rope), their feet in the water act like an anchor, and the dead weight of the body all serve to make rescue cumbersome. It was difficult to figure out what to do with paddles and still maintain the ability to maneuver. If we had to do it again, we would get out our rope before we reached the victim. This would have increased our options as we could have thrown it to someone on shore rather than asking for a strong swimmer to come out. Once we got the victim, we couldn't let her go to get to the rope. We would also have tried to get her further across the bow of one of the boats right away and begin trying to get some of the water out of her system.
2.A little bit of preparation goes a long way. We had both read "River Rescue" when we began paddling a year ago, and Marie had reviewed it this spring. That helped. Some practice doing river rescue would have been even more helpful. But, probably the best thing we remembered was to be calm and act quickly.
3.The river deserves extraordinary respect. For years, we have read about all the accidents that occur near Great Falls, but we never thought we would be involved in one. As a rule kayakers are more prepared for being on the river - with PFD's helmets, etc. - but incidents such as these make one understand the power of the river.
4.Don't count on professional rescuers to appear quickly and 'save the day'. It took about a half-hour for the park police helicopter to arrive on the scene, and closer to an hour before rescue boats appeared in the Difficult Run area. One police officer told us they depend upon paddlers like us to help them out. Luckily, we were there at the right time; luckily, we were calm and knew what to do. We have been sobered by the experience, and we extend our deepest sympathy to the family that lost a son and brother.
SOURCE: Paul Leonard & Marie Monrad; Canoe Cruiser's Assn."Cruiser"