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Accident Description


RIVER DEBRIS CLAIMS NOVICE KAYAKER

Tuckaseegee River Near Bryson City, NC: July 9, 1989

Volume: High; Classification III

By Slim Ray for the Nantahala Outdoor Center

SUMMARY: Roger Stallings, 30, of Greenville, TN, drowned while paddling a kayak on the Tuckasegee River near Dillsboro, N.C., July 9, 1989.  Stallings was taking a beginner kayak clinic from the nearby Nantahala Outdoor Center in Wesser, N.C.  He drowned when his kayak became pinned and folded on a large conveyor belt caught in the middle a small rapid.  Efforts by the two NOC instructors to free the kayak were unsuccessful.

DESCRIPTION: The clinic put in below the dam at Dillsboro and moved down the river about a mile and a half.  A hundred yards below the Railroad Bridge Rapid (Class II), a small island splits the river, narrowing it to a channel perhaps seventy feet wide with a fast chute of current and several standing waves about a foot high.  The last wave breaks back to form a small hole.  On the river right of the chute is a large rock some four feet in diameter which sticks up out of the water about three feet.  Below this rapid (it is stretching things slightly to call it Class II), is a deep pool, then the river broadens and becomes very shallow, then deepens again and is split by another island.

The lead instructor took two students with him to run down through this rapid.  The rest of the students were to follow him single-file through the wave train.  The assistant instructor stayed above the rapid to assist the remaining members of the group.  Stallings was the next to last boat down.  His boat stopped abruptly in the middle of the last wave, then began to fold with the stern climbing into the air.  In less than a minute, according to witnesses, the stern folded over, forcing his head underwater.

Stallings pinned, as later investigation would show, on an industrial conveyor belt lodged underneath the rock on the right.  The belt looped out into the current more than halfway across the chute and was hidden in the wave/hole at the bottom.  The belt was some 18" wide and made of an extremely stiff rubberized material.  Its length is still unknown, and efforts to remove it have not been entirely successful.  The belt faced edge-on to the current and moved dynamically up and down in a random fashion.  There was no surface signature or warning of this deadly snare.  Only a half-hour before another kayak clinic had traversed this same rapid with no problems.  The bow of the kayak (a Perception Dancer) evidently became caught in a loop of this belt.  Clearly it was a matter of timing; Stalling's bow plunged down into the wave at the same time the belt surged up.

The two instructors began rescue efforts immediately, but it was nearly ten minutes before they were able, at considerable risk to themselves, to attach a rope to the boat's grab loop and begin to pull the boat free.  During the rescue, Stalling's body washed out of the boat and was not recovered until several days later.

ANALYSIS: This is the type of accident that haunts every kayak instructor.  The hazard was invisible, unexpected, and deadly.  The instructors did not know until the next day, after an investigation by rescue squad members, exactly what had caused the pinning.  A local outfitter claims to have seen the belt upstream and to have tried to remove it during a prior river cleanup trip.  In his opinion the belt moved downstream during the period of high water in the week before the accident.  The Tuckasegee flows through several small towns and has some industry on the banks and tributaries.  There is a fair amount of junk in the river, although most of it is harmless.  Certainly it is irresponsible (although unfortunately common) to throw things like conveyor belts in the river.

Rescue efforts by the instructors were quick and effective, but a situation like this simply points up the lack of time in a head-down pin.  Rescuers have only 3-5 minutes, at most, to assess the situation and extricate the victim.  The only possible criticism of the rescue was that both instructors exposed themselves to a great deal of danger in their attempt to rescue Stallings.

The boat, a Perception Dancer, folded just forward of the cockpit.  It appears from examining the boat that a loop of the belt slid up the left side of the boat until it was stopped by the cockpit.  It is worth noting that a releasable safety deck would have been of no use in this situation, since the belt would have covered the deck.  Similarly, a European bulkhead design would have most likely have folded even sooner, because the belt pressed against the unsupported side of the boat rather than against the bow.  A fiberglass boat with a breakaway cockpit might have broken enough to let the paddler get free, although this is by no means certain.  In short, the vertical wall system favored in this country worked about as well as anything could have been expected to.

On the bright side, cooperation between the Jackson County Rescue Squad and the Nantahala Outdoor Center for the recovery of Stalling's body was exemplary.  The river-wise paddlers from NOC handled most of the water searches, while the rescue squad contributed their equipment and expertise in support and overall management of the operation.