Submitted by Tom Irwin, President, Three Rivers Paddling Club of Pittsbugh, PA
On Friday, April 4th 1980 Ed Florence and John Fitts went out to the Fort Hill bridge on Pennsylvania's Casselman River to practice slalom gates. They were a skilled team with hundreds of hours of training together. They set four gates from the bridge, one of which was directly above the center abutment.They arrived at about 2:00 PM. At 4:15 PM they ran one last series of gates that involved cutting closely across the bridge pier. The boat pinned securely between the two cockpit openings of the C-2. As they attempted to push off they flipped downstream, into the bridge pier.
For a while they were still in the canoe on opposite sides of the pier. They continued to talk to each other while they tried various strategies for freeing the boat. The C-2 was gradually submerging, and Ed Florence finally had to bail out. He was swept downstream about 300 yards. When he reached shore John was not in sight. As he ran back to the bridge he saw John's life jacket floating downstream. The boat was completely submerged and was not visible from shore.
John ran to a nearby home and called for help. The Confluence Fire Department responded. One of their men got on top of the bridge pier and probed the water with a hook. They caught the boat and pulled it up. John was still in the boat; he had been trapped between the boat and the bridge pier when the C-2 pinned. As long as the boat was stuck he cold not get out. His life vest, paddle jacket, and sweater were removed by the rushing water.
1) Bridge piers are surprisingly easy to pin on. With rocks, the pillow that forms on the upstream side pushes boats off to one side or the other. Bridge piers are pointed upstream, so no pillow foems. Pins can happen almost instantly.
2) Ed and John failed to treat the bridge pier as the dangerous hazard it was. The placement of a gate directly above the bridge pier was questionable, and over the course of a long afternoon of practice posed a serious risk.
3) Once they hit and pinned on the pier, Ed and John should have realized the seriousness of their situation and bailed out at once. Both were too concerned about the safety of the boat and neither appreciated the potential for injury.