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Accident Description


INITIATION RAPID CLAIMS A SECOND VICTIM

Upper Gauley River near Summersville Dam in WVA:

October 8, 1994

Gradient - 28 fpm; Volume - 2800 cfs; Classification - IV-V

DESCRIPTION: The Gauley is one of the East's classic expert rivers, offering numerous class IV and V rapids. Initiation Rapid, where the accident took place, is not particularly difficult. There is, however, a hidden danger: the right side of the final drop contains a hidden rock sieve. The sieve is caused by a tapering crack, four feet wide at the top and 2 feet wide at the bottom. A large round rock about three times the size of a basketball is wedged in the bottom third of the crack, forming a drain-like structure. The water on this side of the rapid drains into the crack, and anyone who paddles over it is at risk of being sucked through it. Although this has been well publicized since the 1985 fatality, narrow escapes have occur regularly here.

Dave Mills, 45, was an expert kayaker of long standing. He had run the river many times and was fully aware of the hidden danger of the sieve. The smooth wave above the drop, however, offered an irresistible temptation. Surfing from left to right, he lost control and rocketed over towards the sieve. He hit the "chock-rock", backendered, and pinned in the slot vertically. There was an air pocket created by the water flowing past his head, but the situation was perilous.

A member of the party got on the rock or river left and threw him a rope, but he was unable to save himself. Many others converged on the site and grabbed his arms, but could not pull him free. His boat came off the rock and fell down into the slot. Dave by this time was partly out, but his legs were still stuck in the cockpit. By this time a crowd of twenty people had arrived. They struggled, but were not successful. After 15 minutes Dave lost consciousness. They attached a rope to his kayak and tried to pull it free, but the boat submerged and the body disappeared.

Water was cut off at Summersville Dam and a search began. Boat, life vest, and helmet were recovered that afternoon. His body was found next day by rafters 1/2 miles downstream.

SOURCES: AWA Journal; CCA Cruiser; Charleston Daily Mail; West Virginia DNR

ANALYSIS:

1) Surfing the top wave was a calculated risk. Paddlers take calculated risks every time they are on the river, but in this case the results of the error was tragic. Most people will, in the light of this tragedy, find the risk unacceptable.

2) Rescue attempts were immediate and energetic. A rescue life vest might have been of considerable assistance, giving those on the scene better support and added to their confidence.

3) Several survivors of similar pinnings here have been flushed through the drain, which is usually clear of debris and large enough to let a swimmer through. This may be a reasonable option.

 

"This year, distracted by regular weekend releases on the Upper Youghiogheny, I did not get to the Gauley until early October. There clear, sunny late fall weather and vivid fall colors made paddling pure joy. As we ran through Initiation we saw several paddlers on the right side of the drop. One of the most treacherous spots in the river is located here: a wide crack in an enormous sloping rock buried under a sheet of fast-moving water. The paddlers were holding ropes that disappeared into the crack. They didn't seem to need any help, so my party and I continued downstream.

At the bottom of Pillow Rock someone told us that there had been a drowning in Initiation, and that we'd better paddle hard because the water was being turned off! With a few choice words we hustled on downriver.  

I know the site of the accident well. A few months after a fatality there in 1982 I descended into the crack at low water. The gap tapers from about five to less than three feet in width and is roughly twelve to fifteen feet deep. A round 'chock-rock' about three feet in diameter is wedged tightly into the crack threequarters of the way down, near the top. At the usual fall release levels the river runs into this crack like bath water down a drain. Boaters who paddle down the right side are inevitably carried into the slot; their stern gets sucked into the crack and their boat is wrapped, stern-first and vertically, around the chock.

Many narrow escapes have occurred here. Over the years you could often spot a kayak sticking out of this awful place during Gauley season. The danger is described in several guidebooks, but apparently some folks don't take the time to read them. But I later found out that this was not, as we initially guessed, a typical case of an ignorant paddler gone astray. The victim, Dave Mills, had been boating the river for decades very familiar with the dangers on the right side of Initiation. He was surfing a large wave above the drop when a momentary loss of control sent him flying over towards river right and the water carried him into the crack. His boat became jammed there, so he bailed out. He bodypinned on the chock rock irnmediately thereafter. Frantic rescue attempts were to no avail. Initially an air pocket formed, but Dave was too weak to hold onto a rescue line. A member of his party, holding onto a rope, worked his way down to him. Dave by this time was unconscious, so the rescuer tied a rope around one arm. The group then tried to pull him free, but an awkward hauling angle made the effort fruitless.

Eventually the victim slipped out of his life vest and disappeared into the crack. The rescuers attempted to release the boat, thinking that he might have been trapped against it. It, too, disappeared into the crack, jamming their lines. The following morning his body was found some distance downstream by other boaters.

People will say that surfing a large wave above a dangerous place showed poor judgment. Certainly the penalty for this action was severe, but risk is a matter of degree. The joy of running whitewater lies in handling its pressures with grace and poise. Boaters are constantly taking calculated risks while running or playing drops, paddling near spots in the river which could hurt them.

The potential for injury focuses our mind and spurs our efforts; without some sense of jeopardy the experience would be diminished. It's not unlike driving the two-lane section of Route 19 on the way to the river, confident that you (and the people coming in the other way at high speeds) are not going to screw up. And, like driving a dangerous road late at night, such decisions are a matter of personal choice.

Rivers are usually forgiving, and the penalty for a mistake is usually nothing more than a beating or a bad swim. But there's always the possibility that something more serious will happen. Years of practice give expert boaters enormous confidence. Riding a powerful river can make paddlers feel like "the master of disaster": invulnerable; unstoppable.

But they must never lose respect for the power of whitewater. Paddlers playing waves and holes in difficult rapids can be propelled across the width of the rapid into places that they had never dreamed of going. Most of the time a boater can scramble their way to safety, but not always.