Accident Database

Report ID# 661

  • Impact/Trauma
  • Spinal Injury
  • Other

Accident Description

Forwarded from Laura's husband...

Danger Rapidly Approaching

By Angus Phillips Tuesday , July 11, 2000

Washington is a great place for whitewater paddling, with one of the biggest canoe clubs in the nation, the Canoe Cruisers Association, and the Potomac, widely considered the finest urban wilderness river in the world. Every weekend from March to November, local boaters fan out for trips on fast water from West Virginia to Pennsylvania and beyond. Mostly they come home tired and refreshed, but trouble can strike quickly on a river and can be calamitous.

"I have four screws in my head," Star Mitchell said yesterday from her home in Montgomery County, where she is recovering after breaking her neck on West Virginia's Cheat River, "and a contraption to hold my head still that's attached to a bulletproof vest. Listen. I heard a hollow sound. That's me tapping on my chest."

Mitchell, 63, a retired public school teacher, won't be paddling again for months. She is lucky to be alive after flipping and smacking a rock head-on in a tumultuous Class IV rapids July 4 weekend. She is fortunate in the company she keeps. She was boating that day with Jeff Davis, CCA safety chairman and a professional carpenter. He had the tools and experience to fashion a brace of flotation foam to stabilize her neck, and was skilled enough to paddle her out as she lay immobilized in the bottom of his solo canoe.

�He's a pine knot of a guy,� said Mitchell. �There aren�t too many people who can paddle three miles of Class III rapids with a dead person in the bow. That's a strong man.� She's also lucky for the gear she had. Mitchell said her bulky, old-fashioned life jacket with flotation collar kept her head up out of the water after the accident and an oversized helmet probably minimized damage from the knock.

Like most river accidents, it happened fast. �We'd had a good run,� said Mitchell. �Pete Morgan Rapids is the last Level IV before the takeout. I went too far right, flipped and hit my head. I was going really fast. It put a front tooth right through my lip, but I was never knocked out. I came out of the boat and got shoved into an eddy. The current was trying to push me under an undercut rock. �One guy tried to get me, but I couldn�t reach the grab loop on his kayak. Then Jeff threw me a rope and they pulled me out.� Mitchell lay on the rocks, afraid to move, while a gathering of paddlers considered what to do. Davis was the only one with an open boat capable of carrying her. He also had a small saw for cutting tree limbs. A kayaker volunteered flotation foam from his boat to build a stabilizing brace. Davis cut it to fit and secured it under her life jacket with an Ace bandage and the duct tape experienced paddlers carry to mend shattered boats. He carefully lay Mitchell down in the bottom of his canoe. They whacked into rocks and took on gallons of water forging through rapids to the takeout. �It was touch-and-go,� said Mitchell. �I thought for sure we were going to capsize.

� She was at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown by 9 p.m., where X-rays showed a broken top vertebra. Doctors told her such breaks usually result in paralysis or death. As it is, she�ll be in a body cast three months and expects to be �stiff as a board and weak as a kitten� when it is removed. She�ll paddle again, said Mitchell, �but it�s making me consider if I�ll do Class IV rapids again.

Canoe Cruisers Association runs paddling classes all summer, including: ? Introduction to paddling on the C&O Canal from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays at Fletcher�s Boathouse in the District and Thursdays at Swains Lock in Potomac. Call Ed Pilchard, 301-434-4007. ? Canoeing basics for lakes and rivers, last session is Aug. 17, 19, 20 & 26, call Michael Hoon, 301-589-7533. ? Beginning whitewater canoe, last session is Aug. 16, 19, 20 & 26. Call Bob Kimmel, 703-281-1428. ? Beginning whitewater kayak, last session is Aug. 2, 5-6 p.m.; call Katie Abbruzzese, 703-536-0305. � 2000

The Washington Post Company

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