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Accident Description


FOOT ENTRAPMENT AT NANTAHALA FALLS


Nantahala River near Wesser, N.C.


Date: May 18, 1990; Classification III+

SUMMARY: On May, 18, 1990 Ian Jenkinson capsized his canoe about 30 feet above the final drop of Nantahala Falls. While his partner swam through without incident, Jenkinson's foot became entrapped. Despite a strong rescue effort by N.O.C. personnel which resulted in the near-drowning of one of their group, rescue did not come in time.

DESCRIPTION: The Nantahala River upstream of the Nantahala Outdoor Center is one of the East's busiest rivers. Thousands of people have swum Nantahala Falls without having problems. The victim, a tandem paddler from Great Britain named Ian Jenkinson, was paddling with a group when he capsized above the final drop of Nantahala Falls. Both paddlers swam through the drops in the correct swimmer's position: on their backs with feet up. While his partner floated straight through the rapid, Jenkinson vanished in the bottom hole just left of center. A few moments later his helmet and life jacket washed out, a sure sign of desperate trouble.

Although this was not a commercial trip, a number of N.O.C. staff members were on the scene within minutes. A rope was strung across the river, and Kurt Doettger waded out on the rope to try to locate the victim. Suddenly Doettger's foot became entrapped in the same spot where Jenkinson disappeared. After exhausting himself in an attempt to remain upright on the rope, he let go and disappeared. After a brief time he floated up, face down, with his life vest up over his head and elbows. Doettger came to as he was pulled from the water; he has no memory of going under, but believes his foot was caught when the straps of his river sandals became caught on a rock. He suffered minor injuries to his foot, ankle and knee. He was taken to a local hospital where he was treated and released.

Local rescue squads responded about 45 minutes after the accident. Some time soon after, N.O.C. staff member Kory Kais caught sight of the victim's hand floating near the surface. After tying the rope to Ian's wrist, they were able to pull him out upstream. CPR was started immediately, and the victim was transported to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. Jenkinson's legs were badly bruised from the knees down; it was apparently a full foot and lower leg entrapment.Sources: Dudly Bass, Coastal Canoeists;

John Burton, Nantahala Outdoor Center

ANALYSIS:

1) (John Burton, from the NOC Staff Newsletter) " Hundreds, perhaps thousands of paddlers have swum through the very spot where Ian became entrapped. Our best guess is that the March floods may have scoured some of the smaller rocks from the base of the ledge, exposing several small crevices and pockets into which a foot would fit. At dawn the following day staff from at least three river companies gathered to inspect the falls with the water turned off. The group found a number of small possible entrapment spots which were filled with rocks of various sizes until the consensus was that the danger of a repeat problem at this spot was considerably reduced. Continued monitoring of the area, especially after major floods, will help to insure against further trouble."

2) (Dudley Bass, from Coastal CaNews) "In the wake of this accident some people have commented that the best swimmer's position in big drops is to curl up in a ball." There is increased danger from battering by the rocks (CW), but "the traditional method carries with it the increased chance of vertically pinning with your feet."

3) Wading out in the river to release a foot entrapment is extremely dangerous. Rope supported wading is one option; a paddle-supported pyramid can handle deeper water and is extremely effective if seven people are available to assist. Snag lines are difficult to manage in fast current; I assume this was tried first, since NOC originated the technique. (CW)

4) I have been concerned for some time about the entrapment possibilities of river sandals both in and out of the boat. I recommend booties or sneakers for on-river use. (CW)

CONCLUSIONS:

T

he sheer numbers of people (going over the falls) meant that sooner or later a death was bound to occur. Familiarity can breed a lack of respect. Boaters need to remind themselves to respect the  rivers they play on, and this includes the easier rapids. (DB)