Accident Database

Report ID# 710

  • Swim into Rock or Sieve
  • Does not Apply
  • Inexperience

Accident Description

4-23-01 Notes from Lee Belknap interview of:

Bob Wheeley, Member, Big South Fork interagency rescue team
Retired owner of rafting and canoe outfitter
Bob interviewed survivors 1.5 hours after accident.

Victim: Donald Hunt, 9 yrs old

Big South Fork, 2376 cfs, 53 degree water temp, 4-18-01, 1:30 eastern daylight savings time.

Leonard Smith and Donald in other canoe, father Thomas and sister Heidi, 11, in 1 canoe, on an overnight trip from Leatherwood Ford down. Accident occurred at Angel Falls rapids, Class 5. When shown a picture of the falls, survivors indicated that both boats flipped at the top of the rapids while side by side.

Angel Falls includes a giant boulder on bottom left that is very undercut. It is a former 12-ft waterfall that was blasted by the fish and game commission early in the 20th century (1920's?) to make a fish ladder.

Adults had run this 5 yrs ago, missed the portage then too. This time the 3 survivors and 2 boats flushed through the right channel. All had on PFD's; all survivors had a hard time getting out, Donald was never seen after the flip.

Survivors did a "hasty" search then sent one out for help (2 miles to Leatherwood ford) interagency rescue team (park, local ems) arrived 3 to 3:30 PM. Used bank search, an underwater camera, and an infrared camera in the search.

Not published: Raft service raft became wrapped on river right above the main chute and was not recovered until 4-22. Victim was found 4 ft left of the pinned raft which was 10 ft from right shore.

Rescuers worked through dark, nothing found, did not return from scene until 2 AM. A Black Hawk helicopter was flown in from Ft. Campbell late that night and scanned both banks with infrared in case victim was still alive there.

Same team arrived next morning at 6 AM. Water had dropped 1.5 ft. Victim was found 15 to 20 ft. from right bank, head first, face down, almost sideways, pinned to a rock just in front of a sieve but not in it. Life jacket was still on, his T-shirt had been stretched and pulled over head by the force of the water. It took 1.5 hours to extricate. He was found 100 to 120 feet downstream and 40 ft to right of where the canoes flipped. He must have tried to swim to an eddy on river right and missed it.

Side note: portage trail and sign maintenance stopped here and at Devils Jump about 5 years ago. New park administration may be more willing to listen to this issue. Also, Bob has photos of top of rapids that he used to help customers learn where to portage when he had his old rental shop.Tragedy struck Tennessee’s Big South Fork of the Cumberland on April 18th.

Bob Wheeley, a former area outfitter, told Lee Belknap that Donald Hunt, 9, was on an overnight trip with his father, sister, and a second adult in two canoes. Water levels were medium-high. The group missed the portage for Angel Falls, a nasty Class- IV drop that was created when state fisheries personnel dynamited a 12’ ledge in the 1920’s to create a fish ladder. Three of the paddlers flushed through the right channel unharmed. All were wearing PFD’s but still had trouble getting to shore. Young Hunt became caught by a bad undercut in the left channel. An interagency rescue team consisting of National Park Service and local EMS personnel used an underwater camera to locate the body, and made a successful recovery four days later.


Join AW and support river stewardship nationwide!