RAFTER DROWNS ON CHEAT RIVER
Canyon Run Below Albright WV: April 22,1989
Volume 3.0 (Medium); Class IV
DESCRIPTION: On Saturday, April 22, 1989 the Cheat Canyon was running right around 2.9'-3', by the Route 26 bridge gauge. Air temperature was in the high 50's to low 60's; water temperature was cold, probably in the low 50's. At this level, the Cheat is a solid Class III-IV river.
Coliseum was flipping a number of rafts that day, especially those that attempted the normal kayak route. Due to a winter flood, the slanting rock on the left side of the main drop has shifted slightly; the most noticeable change is that the tongue and diagonal curler are diverted at a greater angle to the right. The eddy behind the slanting rock is now quite turbulent. Rafts taking a far right route over the sloping rock shelf, which had 4" - 12" of water flowing over it, generally had few problems. Most of them managed to punch the hole at the bottom quite easily. But swimmers were usually pushed under for up to 5 - 7 seconds, re-emerging some distance downstream. The force and velocity of the water, and the ease with which it flipped rafts and sub merged swimmers, was impressive. At least one raft flipped in Recyclotron, the nearly river-wide hole above the main drop. Its rafters were recirculated a few times before washing over the rock shelf and through the drop. Reportedly several injuries resulted including a broken leg and a broken kneecap.
The victim, Michael Lowendic, 28, wore a full wetsuit, helmet, and an approved PFD. He was a member of an American Youth Hostel group with their own raft, from Columbus, Ohio. The group appeared to be guided by at least one kayaker and an open canoeist who seemed to know the river. To our knowledge, however, the four people in the raft had not been down the river before, had no guide in the raft, and seemed to have little or no experience in running rivers of this difficulty. There is some question as to this last point. A West Virginia Department of Natural Resources officer was told, in phone interviews with several of the AYH group, that they had run other rivers including the Gauley. However, an experienced canoeist who assisted in bringing the raft down through Pete Morgan's stated that from his on-the-scene observations the two rafters he helped were not at all proficient or experienced paddlers. The group was using a small 4-person raft, which in the hands of experienced paddlers would guarantee an exciting but safe run.
The AYH group flipped their raft either in Recyclotron, or in the main drop at Coliseum, about 5 PM Saturday afternoon. This was not observed by our separate, unrelated group of six kayakers and one open canoeist, as we were in Lower Coliseum and above Pete Morgan's rapid at the time. Two of the four rafters got to shore before being washed through Pete Morgan's; Michael Lowendic and a women washed all the way down. The women was not hurt by her swim, although she was panicky and hysterical. She was rescued below Pete Morgan's by a kayaker believed to be with the AYH group, who had gone through Pete Morgan's with her. The other two rafters managed to swim to shore above Pete Morgan's. The canoeist from our group who later helped bring their raft down through Pete Morgan's with these two rafters had the opportunity to assess their paddling skills first hand. In his opinion their skills were weak and not suited to the difficulty of the river.
One kayaker in our group became aware of the victim just above Pete Morgan's rapid. He gave chase but Michael washed through the drop before he could get to him. At this time Michael was still alive and conscious. An- other kayaker in our group did reach him at the bottom of the drop in fast current. Michael was instructed to get hold of the kayaker's boat by the grab loop, and he did so. The kayaker reports that at this time Michael was moaning and unable to respond to instructions to swim to assist in the rescue. He was paddled close to shore on river right in a minute or so, and was told to let go of the boat and swim to shore. There was not a good landing area here, but a swimmer could manage to climb onto a rock ledge. At this point, though, Michael loosely rolled over face down in the water, unconscious. The kayaker got him to shore on the rock ledge with some difficulty, calling over another kayaker, the one who rescued the girl, to help. Neither knew CPR but immediately called for assistance. CPR was started within two minutes from the time Michael rolled over unconscious. From this time on, CPR was unbroken.
Five to ten minutes into the process, an EMT-certified boater was available to assist and direct the CPR effort. Forty-five minutes to an hour later, the victim was evacuated by helicopter to Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, WV. There are now several helicopter landing sites in the canyon, thanks to the efforts of local rafting outfitters. A guide from one of the companies was able, via radio, to relay the request for a helicopter twenty to thirty minutes after Michael was first gotten to shore.
Michael Lowendic was asthmatic and may have had an asthma attack in conjunction with his swim. The results of an autopsy to determine cause of death were not known at this time. We (our paddling group) discussed this tragic accident at some length. We don't know if this death could have been prevented. Certainly there are several things, which if they had been done, may have increased Michael's chances of survival:
1.This group of rafters may have been too inexperienced to run the Cheat at this level, in a too-small raft. Perhaps they shouldn't have been on the river.
2.It would have been prudent to scout this rapid. Coliseum changed over the winter, and it is one of the major rapids in the canyon.
3.Throw ropes could have been set up below the drop. If Michael had been pulled out right below the main drop at Coliseum, he might have survived.
It seems that this death had many factors contributing to it, all of which worked against Michael Lowendic: The rafters' inexperience, a too-small raft, forceful rapids, a long swim, fairly cold water, and perhaps an asthma attack. It is unfortunate that this combination proved to be too muc for Michael to overcome.
(Source did not sign report, but info checks with others on the scene))