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Accident Description


Boat Pinned in Lower Railroad Rapid
New River Gorge below Cunard, WV: September 21, 1991
River Level: -1 foot

On September 21, 1991 a group of paddlers from Washington, DC decided to beat the Gauley Festival crowds by running the New River Gorge. This popular summer classic was running negative 1 foor. This exposes a number of dangerous undercut rocks at Lower Railroad Rapid., the site of a previous fatal pinning at low water. The victim, Ned Helmsley, was a strong paddler who was very familiar with the river. Paddling a low-volume kayak., he launched with his wife and two friends at Cunard and arrived at Lower Railroad very quickly. As he started into the left-hand chute he yelled to the group, "You'd better watch out, there's a pinning rock in here!" He vertically pinned at the bottom of the ledge. Water poured over his back, forming an air pocket. Initially he was stable, but after ten minutes the boat shifted and pulled him under. His paddle floated out immediately, signalling a loss of consciousness.

Because there were no exposed rocks anywhere near the victim his group could not organize a rescue. The recovery was made by guides from Class VI river runners, who arrived 5-10 minutes after the accident. Using a raft to ferry over to the pin site, a guide was able to clip into the pinnbed kayak's grab loop. At this point, a group on shore pulled the boat free. The autopsy showed that the victim died from massive chest injuries caused when the force of the water pressed him agfainst  surrounding rocks.

Sources: Mike Aronoff, Bill Shallbeter1) This rapid was the site of a similar fatal pinning in 1985. Mr. Helmsley knew about this, but got in trouble anyway. New River veterans recommend either running the drop on the far right (very rocky) or scouting the left and center chutes carefully before running them.

2) The accident site is extremely difficult to reach. Class VI River Runners is commended for their effective handling of this situation.

3)  Low-volume kayaks are susceptable to vertical pins, and their small cockpits may impede exit. Mr. Helmsley was a big man, weighing over 200 pounds, and it appears that both were too small for his safety. The boat did not fold, and the sprayskirt did not release.