Accident Database

Report ID# 669

  • Pinned in Boat against Rock or Sieve
  • Does not Apply
  • Failed Rescue

Accident Description

From: �AubreeAndr�>


Sent: Wednesday, August 09, 2000 8:51 PM>

Subject: Green River Drowning - the full story, I was there Gerald Dewhit Mills was my best friend and a great paddler. This was his first descent down the Green and he was more than ready for it. Whit and I met up with some friends to paddle the Green on Monday. On the trip were two paddlers that had run the Green several times before and knew the river very well. Along with Whit were two other first timers to the river. We put on close to noon and found ourselves at Chief's rapid at a little after 1 pm.>

Whit was the third of six through the rapid. He didn't have enough speed to boof over the second rock and ended up going over the river left channel backwards. He went out of sight underneath the rock and we immediatley started trying to get to him and free him. After many attempts with through-bags, I left my boat and swam to base of rock where I was able to grab his hand. After pulling for a time, his hand went limp and I could not hold on to him any longer.>

Rob Barham, one of western NC best and most experienced white water paddlers worked diligently to lasso his hand with a rope, but the water was too swift. Other people in our party helped by paddling downstream to get help from rescue squads. We did all that we could do, but none of our actions were able to free Whit from the water.>

Whit Mills was a great person and friend and was liked by many, many people. His father was one of my paddling heros as I was growing up. He will be missed by all that knew him.>

Heath White>

Kayaker dies navigating Green River Narrows>

By Amy B. McCraw Times-News Staff Writer>

August 8, 2000>

GREEN RIVER GAMELANDS - A kayaker died Monday when he became wedged under a boulder while trying to navigate the treacherous Green River Narrows. "I saw my best friend die in front of my eyes," Heath White of Hot Springs said as he described the accident. White said he was sitting in an eddy in his kayak below a rapid watching his friend when he saw him go down a dangerous channel in the river and become pinned under the boulder. Police identified the man as 29-year-old Gerald Dewitt Mills Jr. of Portland, Ore. White and other kayakers on the river tried unsuccessfully to use ropes to free Mills. When the ropes failed, White said he made his way to his friend and grabbed his hand. White tried to pull him free but he eventually felt his hand go limp.>

White said Mills was from Portland, Ore., and had come to the area to help him with work. Mills also had family members who live in the area, officers said. White described Mills as a very good and experienced boater. But White said Mills had never been down the Narrows before. "We had been paddling quite a bit. He had been wanting to run it," White said. "We both felt he was ready." They had gone kayaking Monday with a group of other enthusiasts of the sport. Some of the kayakers in the group made their way out of the wilderness to call for help.>

The Narrows, located where the river plunges from Henderson into Polk County, is considered one of the most difficult whitewater runs in the Eastern United States. Here the river tumbles over, under and around giant boulders in a series of a dozen rapids rated class V, the most difficult category. Henderson County Sheriff's Department dispatchers said they received a call about the accident at the Narrows at 1:46 p.m. Emergency rescue crews from several departments responded to the accident. They hiked the steep terrain down Pulliam Creek Trail off Big Hungry Road to the river. Blue Ridge firefighter Joey Drake said he was the first emergency worker on the scene.>

When he reached the river, Mills and his kayak were under water. Drake and the other rescuers, along with kayakers who remained at the river, quickly developed a plan to remove the body without causing injuries to the rescuers. "We had to set up rope and rigging," he said. They eventually pulled the body free from the boulder, he said. Polk County Sheriff's Department Detective Lt. Kenny Kempster investigated the accident Monday. He said the kayakers were trying to negotiate a portion of the Narrows called the "Chief." That portion of the river includes a steep fall, but kayakers often avoid the fall by going around it, Kempster said. "They cheat it by going to the right. He was trying to go right but went left," he said. When the kayak went the wrong way, Mills plunged down the fall. "He went straight into it and didn't come up," he said.>

Emergency workers tried to arrange for a helicopter to lift the man's body from the river. The steep terrain and lack of a trail make the area inaccessible to emergency vehicles or the all-terrain vehicles often used in rescue operations in remote areas. An available helicopter that was capable of airlifting a body from the river was not located. Without a helicopter or access to emergency vehicles, the rescuers had to carry the body. As many as 36 rescuers took turns Monday night carrying the body out of the wilderness using baskets and ropes through the steepest portion of the trail.>

A dozen years ago, only a handful of expert paddlers tackled the boulder-strewn waterfalls in the gorge. But in the past few years, hundreds of boaters have paddled the Narrows as a rite of passage to expert status. The river's world-class rapids and dependable flows attract boaters from all over the United States and from foreign countries. Monday's death was apparently the first of a skilled boater in the Narrows, although there have been other accidents and close calls. In the early 1990s, Slim Ray, an expert kayaker and author of a book on river rescue techniques, was left partially paralyzed after his kayak pinned in a drop called "Sunshine Falls." Emergency calls to the Narrows have increased over the years as the area became more popular. Drake said he hoped a trail accessible to all-terrain vehicles will eventually be cut into the wilderness to allow for quicker emergency response. Drake twisted his ankle while he and others were working to free the body. But he said he did not believe he was seriously injured. The Henderson County Emergency Medical Service also treated a kayaker who suffered from heat exhaustion associated with the hike from the river. Times-News reporter Harrison Metzger contributed to this report.>

Contact McCraw at>

Kayaker's death brings river safety to forefront>

By Karen Chavez, STAFF WRITER>

Updated: Aug 9 at 01:30>

COLUMBUS - The death Monday of a kayaker on the Green River has heightened the need for safety awareness and rescue skills when paddling the region's rivers. Gerald DeWitt Mills Jr., 29, of Portland, Ore., died in The Narrows section of the Green River when his kayak was trapped by rushing water at the bottom of a waterfall drop, said detective Lt. Kenny Kempster of the Polk County Sheriff's Department.>

Mills, known by his friends as "Witt," had roots in Western North Carolina. He had relatives who live in the Asheville area and friends say he spent many summers paddling on area rivers. Monday was Mills' first time on the Green River. Mills and a friend started out to paddle the Green River about noon on Monday, Kempster said, and were with a group of several other kayakers at about 1 p.m. when they went through The Narrows, a dangerous section of whitewater with a succession of class 5 and 6 rapids, the most treacherous and difficult level of rapids. Mills was pinned vertically in a section called "the Chiefs.">

Slim Ray, a former kayaking instructor who now writes books on whitewater safety, offers some advice when paddling the rivers of Western North Carolina. Take a course in whitewater rescue Always wear a life jacket or personal flotation device Always wear a correctly fitted helmet When kayaking, travel in a group of at least three people, so if someone is in trouble, there is one person to stay and one to go for help Know your skill level before attempting high-risk rapids Take a throw bag, knife, whistle and carabiners Assess a rescue situation before entering moving water. First reach with a pole or paddle, then throw a rope, then go in as a last resort. Remember: Reach, throw, go. Don't tie yourself to a rope if you do go in the water>

"He was going to go to the right of the falls - it's the easier way to get around it," Kempster said. "A current caught him and pulled him to the left. It turned him backwards over the falls, a 6-7 foot drop." He said the other kayakers immediately tried to get Mills free with ropes, but the water pressure from the dam release was too powerful. "It is a dangerous river. In that section they were in, you need to be experienced and have someone who knows the river well. It is the most challenging for a kayaker," Kempster said.>

According to the National Weather Service in Greenville-Spartanburg, the recent heavy rainfalls were not a factor in the height of the river. As of this week, rainfall is about 6 inches less than the same time last year, said Terry Benthall, program manager with the Weather Service. "It's right in the middle of nowhere," Kempster said of the remote section of river where The Narrows lies. This made it difficult for a rescue team to reach the accident scene. One kayaker paddled downstream to where Thomas Oliver and Chris Oblinger were, having already paddled through the Chiefs in their kayaks. They called 911 from a cell phone, met the rescue team and directed them toward the Chiefs, Oliver said. "It was a 45-minute hike into the gorge," Oliver said. He and Oblinger, both of Hendersonville and avid paddlers, worked with the rescue team to rig up a pulley system with ropes and carabiners to extricate Mills, who had been trapped under water in his kayak for about two hours.>

A decade ago, only expert paddlers would attempt to run the Green River, said Slim Ray of Asheville. "It's a pretty nasty little river, but people are paddling it routinely." A former kayaking instructor with Nantahala Outdoor Center in Wesser, Ray was in an accident 10 years ago on the Green River that broke his back and left him a paraplegic. It was his first and last time on that river. "When we were doing it 10 years ago, it was considered cutting edge whitewater," Ray said. "But quite a lot of people are out there doing it now." He said that anyone planning a kayaking trip should first read up on whitewater rescue and take a course. Even in calmer rivers, there is always the possibility of getting trapped or having an accident.>

For a river so wild, however, fatalities are rare on the Green River. There have been many boaters injured, but this is the first death from a boating accident on record on the Green River, said Lee Belknap, safety chair of American Whitewater, a national group with an office in Asheville. The organization promotes conservation, river access and boating safety. Belknap said there have been a few recent deaths on the Chattooga, Nolichucky and Ocoee rivers, but people attempting to run the Green River are usually those who are safety conscious. Ray now owns a publishing company and writes books on whitewater safety, including, "River Rescue." He doesn't deter anyone from paddling in whitewater, but warns that there is always a risk. "If you understand what the risks are and are willing to take them, then go ahead and do it.">

Contact Chavez at 236-8980 or>

The Green River Gorge near Hendersonville, North Carolina is one of the East�s classic class V runs. Like Gore Canyon, there had never been a death there until this year. An excellent report written by Bryan Jennings and Rob Barnham described the accident as follows: Witt Mills, 29, was a strong paddler from Oregon who had family and friends in North Carolina. On August 8th he attempted the run the Green with a strong, experienced group. At "Chief" the group elected to run a popular right-hand sneak. The move consists of a left-to right boof off a rock. Mills misunderstood the move, and paddled with a sideways angle into a the left channel where a strong jet of water dove into an undercut rock. Here he pinned vertically, and his high volume creek boat became completely submerged. This spot was not easy for rescuers to reach. Several boaters tried to approach from downstream by paddling into a hole and reaching out with their paddles. Another boater, who was setting safety from shore, began throwing his rope within seconds of the pin. Mills reached up several times in the first few minutes but was unable to catch the rope. His hand went under for the last time, Minutes later his life vest was pulled from his body, followed by his sprayskirt, float bags, and some foam outfitting from his boat. One of the paddlers went to get help. He reached the takeout and called 911 from a cell phone. He then lead a group of paddlers from there into the gorge via a hiking trail, then upstream to the accident site. While he was gone, the rest of the group continued their extrication attempts. Mills� body and boat was not visible, but the group knew where he was. Much later, at 3:00, they managed to snag Mills� arm with a rope . They pulled, but were unable to hold it above the surface for more than a few seconds. One paddler, training to be a paramedic, set up a CPR station on some flat rocks on river right. Another acted as downstream safety. This continued without success until the rescue squad arrived at 4:00. By this time the release was over and the river had dropped. Mills and his boat were clearly visible. After an intense discussion, the group convinced the rescue squad that they knew what they were doing and should be allowed to continue their efforts. They first tried setting a rope under Mills� torso and pulling. That didn�t work. They then belayed a paddler into an eddy near the boat. This spot had been a hole during the release. Next, they attached a line to the kayak�s security loop. Using a z-drag, 10-12 people quickly pulled the boat free. Mill�s body floated free, and was quickly grabbed and pulled ashore. Clay Wright feels that the boat may have folded, but this damage was difficult to detect.. It took a team of 36 rescuers from several units several hours to carry the body up a steep trail leading out of the gorge to the road.>

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