River Incident Account of the death of April Morton on Big
written by Shaun Mullins
Date of incident: December 15, 2019
Our group met at the Hot Springs takeout at noon to join up
and paddle Big Laurel. We had 7 total in our group, with all being experienced
boaters who had paddled extensively over years of time on class 3-3+ and above
in their paddling career. Three of the seven on our crew were on their first
ever descent of Big Laurel. We ran
shuttle and put on Big Laurel. A friend of mine looked at the level gauge at
the bridge just before we put on and said it was about 10 inches, which I would
consider a good medium flow for this section.
I was one of several in our crew with experience on this
section of river. We were all helping to provide beta to the PFD boaters as we
put in and while on the river. Our crew had no problems at all as we made our
way to the rapid called Stairstep. As we arrived at the top of Stairstep rapid,
I had all of the PFD boaters eddy out on river right, well above the rapid, to
get out and scout. All three PFD’s got out with me and we walked down the right
side and scouted. That right side is a scouting location that allows one to see
the entire rapid from top to bottom from a really good perspective, and is on
the side of the river where the line through this rapid is located (river
right). We talked about the line, the lead in, where you want to be, avoiding
going anywhere left of the main line, and to tuck tight in the event they do
flip in the rapid due to some shallow areas in the flow. We then watched two of
our more experienced crewmembers run the line down the rapid while standing
right there above the rapid with a bird’s eye view. After that, another group
came through and approximately 6 boaters ran that same line in front of
everyone scouting. Before getting back into our boats, I also reminded everyone
that if they were not feeling it, that they could ferry across from where we
had stopped, and portage along the trail located river left. Everyone chose to
run the rapid.
Once in our boats in the staging eddy, a few people
mentioned that it looked different from their boat. I volunteered to go ahead
and paddle into the rapid on the line we discussed so they could see from their
boat in the river the location of the entry line of the rapid. I ran it
straight down the main flow in that right channel like we scouted and
discussed. Then, Tom and Christian came through on that same line. Billie – who
has run this creek many times – was asked by April to let her follow her
through and she obliged. As Billie started over the first small ledge drop, she
looked back and saw April following her line not too far behind.
Billie came through on a perfect line through the rapid.
Then, I switched my vision upstream and saw that April was moving river left
from the main line. She was upright in her boat. I saw her boat drift into
contact with one of the boulders that form a sieve in that area and flip to the
upstream side. Then, almost immediately, I saw the boat begin to drift away and
I saw April’s foot sticking out just above the surface above the rocks.
Within seconds, I was out of my boat with my throw rope
sprinting up the river right rocks to where she was. I had staged at the very
top of the river left eddy to be prepared to peel out into the flow in case
someone flipped and needed help. I had hands on her leg within about 30-40
seconds of her going underwater, and I began pulling up and outward as hard as
I possibly could. My efforts could not budge her at all. She was stuck in the
sieve head-first and only her right leg was within reach. By that time, Aaron
was on the rock with me and we turned our attention to the 8” log that was
sticking straight up in the sieve with the top of the log extending approximately
8-10 inches above the surface at the time. We figured that the log was blocking
the sieve and that it was preventing her from flushing through – as I
understand it, several other boaters have flushed through this spot in the
past. Aaron and I lifted, pushed, pulled, and did everything we could to
dislodge both April and the log. We could move the top of the log about a foot
in a couple directions, but could not get it to dislodge.
I am guessing about 2 minutes in at this point, I yelled
for a rope from the rest of the crew that had set up upstream river left of the
sieve. Stuart hit me with a rope immediately, and I quickly made a few wraps
around the top of the log and attached the rope back into itself using a
carabiner. At least 4 people were pulling on the rope as hard as they could as
Aaron and I pushed and pulled on the log, but it still would not dislodge. I
immediately removed the rope from the log and attached it to the only part of
April that I could reach – her lower right leg (I made several wraps around her
lower leg and attached the rope back to itself using a carabiner) – and they
pulled again as hard as they could, but she did not budge at all. The rope
angle from their position was pulling her in the upstream outward direction
from the sieve and I couldn’t believe that it was not getting her out. During
this, someone was attempting to make the call to 911 to get EMS on the way. I
think they had to run up the trail in order to get signal and make the call.
Aaron went up to help the others pull on the rope and I
stayed at the top of the sieve to continue trying to move that log and grab
onto any part of April that I could and pull. I tried in vain to reach her
rescue PFD to attach another carabiner/rope, but could never reach deep enough.
Even by placing my upper body down into the water at the sieve to try and reach
it, I still could not reach it. April never budged during all of our efforts
Additional kayakers, hikers, etc. had stopped and gotten
involved in the effort at this point. Lots of people on the rope pulling, while
I continued to try and dislodge the log and April from the sieve. The crew had
to resort to using a mechanical advantage (Z-drag) system on the rope to pull
with more force. Once this was set up, the crew pulled and even had to reset
the prusiks to make multiple pulls with the Z-drag before April was finally
pulled free from the sieve’s grip. I yelled “She’s out! She’s Out”. Also, as soon as she pulled free of the
sieve, that log dislodged on its own and drifted downstream. We all jumped into
the water and grabbed April. Then, the rope on her leg got caught in some rocks
and we used a river knife to cut her free within seconds. Then we dragged her
body onto a flat rock just a few feet away on the river left bank and CPR was
started immediately. I estimate that it took approx. 20 minutes from the time
she went under to the time we had her out and were performing CPR.
Report by John Volger
Who was not in the group, but is a paramedic who assisted with CPR
This is my account of the drowning on Big Laurel NC. I did not witness the entrapment but I’ll start from what I saw and then paraphrase a first hand account of the entrapment.
I was paddling with one other kayaker, it was close to 2 PM Dec 15 2019. The level was around 6 inches on the bridge gauge, a low medium. We had paddled about 1 mile in when we were flagged down by some boaters running upstream on the riverside trail to cell service. They warned us that a boater was getting CPR at the first big rapid called stairstep.
Myself, being a paramedic, and my fellow boater, a firefighter/EMT, knew we would be able to help in some way, with both of us doing CPR regularly on the job. We arrived to find a group doing excellent CPR, with at least one EMT in the group. We joined in and continued until paramedics and local volunteer firefighter/ rescue crews arrived. Their response was timely, especially considering there was no cell phone service at the scene and then they had to hike in a mile once they arrived.
Advanced life support was initiated and every effort was made. As a paramedic I can say that everything was done that was possible to reverse the cardiac arrest. The ACLS algorithms were followed just as they would have been in an emergency room. An ED doctor happened to paddle in and contributed to the efforts as well. All the professionals on scene agreed her best chance was to continue resuscitation efforts there on scene where the highest quality CPR could be delivered as well as the medications and defibrillation- just as it would have been at an ED. After over an hour of CPR the extraction began and the first responders and responding paramedics heroically continued CPR as best they could as she was carried, and then moved on an ATV, and then to the ambulance, and as I understand it they worked all the way to the hospital as they ensured the any possible hypothermia was reversed.
From a member of her party, I got an account of the entrapment. She was a solid Knoxville boater with several years experience. It happened in the sieve on the left after the top drop of stairstep. This is the one that is known to have had some close calls. She apparently got kicked left in the top drop and flipped when her boat hit a log lodged between the two rocks. When she came out of her boat she went straight into the sieve. It was immediately a head down entrapment. Her group rushed to help and were able to get to her to get a rope around her leg. They could reach her from the rocks forming the sieve. They couldn’t get her out with a direct pull over the force of the water. With the help of another crew who had arrived,they set up a mechanical advantage. They got her free. There was a log in the sieve that had to be moved for her to get free. It was said she was heads down around 20 minutes.
Knoxville kayaker drowns in accident on Laurel River in
Pisgah National Forest
Karen Chávez, Asheville Citizen Times
Published 10:11 a.m. ET Dec. 18, 2019
A Knoxville woman died in a kayaking accident Dec. 15 on
the Laurel River in Madison County, according to Madison County Emergency
Management coordinator Louis Roberts. The woman was identified as April Morton,
31, an experienced kayaker, by American Whitewater, a national river
conservation nonprofit that works to protect and restore America’s whitewater
rivers and to encourage their safe use.
Friends and the boating communities in Tennessee and WNC
have been pouring out heartsick tributes to Morton on social media, describing
her over and over as kind, sweet, caring, intelligent, humble and joyful,
someone who loved adventure and always wore a smile. She was considered an
expert paddler and was a member of the Chota Canoe Club in Knoxville,
Tennessee. According to friend Stephanie Johnson, she and Morton were roommates
on a recent paddling trip to Costa Rica.
“April, you will be missed. A large hole has been left in
our paddling community. The river gives and it can also take away. We can only
honor your memory by sharing your smile and spreading the joy that you gave
us,” Johnson wrote in tribute to Morton on Facebook.
According to Roberts, the county dispatch received a 911
call at 1:45 p.m. Dec. 15 of a river rescue in progress on the Laurel River,
which is in the Pisgah National Forest in Marshall. The popular whitewater
river is accessed by the Laurel River trailhead at the intersection of U.S.
25/70 and N.C. 208. The river flows downstream over class 3+ rapids to the
confluence with the French Broad River.
Roberts said Madison County EMS was the first on scene,
at 1:55 p.m., followed by the Walnut Fire Department and then Emergency
Management, where friends of the patient and medical personnel who happened to
also be kayaking in the vicinity were in the process of performing CPR on
Morton about 2 miles from the trailhead. The Stairstep Rapid on the Laurel
River in Madison County, seen here, is where a fatal kayaking incident occurred
Roberts said the emergency responders then took over CPR
until Morton was transported to Mission Hospital in Asheville where she was
“The information I received when I arrived from fire
department personnel was that she was going through some rapids and got hung
underneath a tree in the water, which she didn’t see as she was going into the
rapids,” Roberts said.
“We had quite a bit of rain a couple of days before. The
water level was elevated.”
American Whitewater listed the river level as 11 inches,
considered a medium water level, suitable for kayaking. According to the
website, a person on scene, who did not witness Morton’s entrapment or
extraction, described the resuscitation efforts:
“We had paddled
about 1 mile in when we were flagged down by some boaters running upstream on
the riverside trail to cell service. They warned us that a boater was getting
CPR at the first big rapid called Stairstep.
“Myself, being a paramedic, and my fellow boater, a
firefighter/EMT, knew we would be able to help in some way, with both of us
doing CPR regularly on the job. We arrived to find a group doing excellent CPR,
with at least one EMT in the group. We joined in and continued until paramedics
and local volunteer firefighter/rescue crews arrived. Their response was
“Advanced life support was initiated and every effort was
made. As a paramedic I can say that everything was done that was possible to
reverse the cardiac arrest.” Avid kayaker Marc Hunt of Asheville took this
photo of the Laurel River about an hour before the fatal accident that occurred
here. There is a known hazard on the right side of the photo, through the big
rock pile, with an eddy and a pink rock beneath it.
The witness said that protocol was followed just as it
would have been in an emergency room. A doctor also happened to paddle in and
helped with the resuscitation efforts. After more than an hour of CPR the
extraction began and the first responders and responding paramedics “heroically
continued CPR as best they could as she was carried, and then moved on an ATV,
and then to the ambulance, and as I understand it they worked all the way to
the hospital as they ensured the any possible hypothermia was reversed.”
Kevin Colburn, national stewardship director for American
Whitewater who is based in Asheville, said he has paddled the Laurel River
dozens of times, and although it is popular, there is a known hazard near
Stairstep Rapids called a “sieve” that is listed on the AW website. The
nonprofit has been maintaining a database of river boating-related accidents
and deaths for 45 years.
Stairstep Rapids is one of the harder rapids on the run.
It gets paddled a lot. There are thousands of descents a month,” Colburn said.
“A sieve is where water flows down under between the rocks, creating a kind of
drain. It’s a situation that is dangerous because boats and people don’t always
fit through the holes.
“They’re a very dangerous part of many rivers. It’s not
common to get anywhere near the sieve, but it’s not impossible to get kicked
over there by the current,” he said.
Although the incident occurred on U.S. Forest Service
property, any boating accidents in the state are investigated by the N.C.
Wildlife Resources Commission, which has jurisdiction over all surface waters,
including rivers and lakes. As of Dec. 18, the wildlife commission had released
any information regarding the fatality after repeated calls from the Citizen
The Madison County Sheriff’s Department, which had also
been investigating, had also not returned phone calls about the investigation.
Meanwhile, social media chatter was running rampant with
theories and worries about who the kayaker was and what exactly had happened.Last
year was a deadly one in Western North Carolina for kayakers, with six reported
fatalities. It appears that Morton’s death was the first kayaking fatality of
2019 in WNC.
Colburn said that AW keeps up with river hazards and
water levels, and compiles reports of all accidents and fatalities to educate
the boating public. “That’s what we do. We pull together accounts and share
them to reduce accidents. We want people to learn from accidents and not repeat
them,” Colburn said.