Accident Database

Report ID# 65

  • Swim into Rock or Sieve
  • Does not Apply
  • One Boat Trip

Accident Description


Chatooga River, Georgia/South Carolina Border

Crack-In-The-Rock Rapid; Left Crack; August 27, 1989

Level: 1.65 at Rt 76 (Medium Flow)

Gradient 45 FPM; Classification: IV

SUMMARY: On August 27, 1989 an inexperienced group of nine rafters attempted section IV of the Chatooga. One of the two rafts flipped in the upper hole of Corkscrew Rapid, spilling five paddlers into the water. All five washed through Crack-in-the-Rock rapid; only four came out. The remaining eight rafters proceeded to the take-out not knowing that their friend was pinned underwater.

DESCRIPTION The National Wild and Scenic Chatooga forms the border of South Carolina and . It has several sections of whitewater ranging in difficulty from class II to V. Section IV is the most difficult stretch of the river, with many class IV-V rapids. The intense quarter mile known as the Five Falls has a gradient of over 200 feet per mile; Crack-in the Rock is the third of the Five Falls. A level of 1.65 at the Highway 76 Bridge, boosted by inflow from Stekoa Creek downstream, is considered moderate, but not to be trifled with.

Nine heathy college men rented two rafts and equipment for EIGHT at a local whitewater shop. The weekend rental came with the explicit agreement that the group was to raft sections II and III only, and was by no means to go beyond the Highway 76 Bridge. Instead, the group rafted Sections III and IV. The ninth member, for whom no lifejacket or helmet had been rented, went on the river instead of running shuttle.


I saw the group on Saturday running Bull Sluice, the class IV+ finale to Section III. It is not unusual to see rental rafts out of control in this drop, but this group was exceptional. Out of four men in the first raft, none had on helmets, only three were wearing life jackets, and none of these were zipped. They hit Decapitation Rock and nearly flipped, dumping the crew out. The fellow without a lifejacket was under water long enough for me to wonder if he were trapped. They were drunk, and the smell of alcohol was strong. The second raft's run was unremarkable, with only a few swimmers. There was no rangers at the site, and the men were unresponsive when our group tried to talk with them. When asked about the missing lifejacket, they claimed they had lost it upstream.

On Sunday, August 27 eight men with all the required equipment put in at the 76 Bridge. River Ranger Tina Barnes was on site. Knowing that rental gear is not supposed to run this stretch, she tried to talk the group out of going, but could not detain them because no forest service regulations were being violated. They probably picked up their ninth, unequipped member downstream.


Some time around 2:00 the nine men made it to the Five Falls. One of the rafts flipped in the large pourover at the top of Corkscrew. Five men floated past several eddies into Crack-in the-Rock. One swam in the direction of Left Crack and disappeared. (There have been two previous deaths at this spot). The rafter without a life jacket swam through Middle Crack (also a known death trap) and flushed through. The remaining three apparently went through Right Crack, which is less hazardous and is chosen by most paddlers. Boaters several rapids below knew that there had been a mishap because of helmets and paddles being washed downstream, but there were no experienced boaters at the site. Shortly thereafter a pair of kayakers, after questioning the rafters, paddled out and notified the Forest Service that one person had disappeared while swimming left crack. The rest of the group, assuming that their buddy had hiked out, continued downstream to the takeout where they remained until they got a shuttle with the coroner.

Left crack is about 3' wide and 4' high, with the water pillowing against the river-left side. There is a log, and perhaps a rock which leans upstream, deep in the powerful currents at the foot of the drop. The victim apparently swam into the crack feet-first. His legs must have gone under the obstacle, and his body was folded over by the force of the water. He was still wearing his life jacket.

River Ranger Buzz Williams was first on the scene. Aided by Southeastern Expeditions and N.O.C. guides, they located the body (by poking around in the drop with a stick) and the extrication was begun. (After a snag line failed, a raft was hauled into the drop from downstream, and two rescuers were able to attach a rope to the victim's waist.) 3 hours, 6 z-drags, a come-along, and a vector pull later the victim was freed. Twenty-five people had hiked or boated in by the time he was released. The rescue was well executed, with Buzz Williams (USFS), Dennis Kerrigan (NOC) and Andy Smith (SE) providing the leadership. At about 6:3O the victim was placed in a body bag and rafted out. The Southeastern Expeditions motor boat met the two rafts at the head of the lake and towed them out.

SOURCE: Teresa Grider (Author)

; Dennis Kerrigan (Comments and info on rescue are noted in parenthesis)


1) The group did everything wrong. They were unfamiliar with the river. They were improperly equipped. Their lack of skill put them in the water at a dangerous place and they are fortunate that several fatalities did not result. (CW)

2) It's hard to know what more could be done to prevent these "Deliverance trips" from getting on the river. The outfitter renting to these men told them not to attempt this section of river. Ranger Barnes did her best to persuade them not to go on Section IV, both at 76 Bridge and at Woodall Shoals. All this went unheeded. I personally regret not chasing down a river when I saw them endangering their lives at Bull Sluice, making them pay a lesser price for their mistakes. (TG)

3) After taking part in the rescue and witnessing the force it took for 25 rescuers using 7 ropes to pull the victim out, I am convinced that there is no possible way to "save" somebody who washes into Left Crack at hazardous levels (1.4-1.8'). The only protective safety measures are knowledge of the hazard and appropriate back-up measures to guard against a swim through Left Crack. In this particular drowning, virtually identical in mechanism to the previous two, these procedures were notably absent. (DK)


This fatality was caused by ignorance on the part of the group combined with a bad attitude that prevented them from receiving advice about the river from experienced people. Only individual paddlers can make the decisions needed to stay out of trouble. Everyone involved made their best effort to protect these people from themselves and to help them when they got into trouble. This accident is a grim reminder of the difficulties of extracting a body from a severe pin, and should make all of us cautious in similar situations.

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