Accident Database

Report ID# 85

Help
  • Caught in Low Head Dam Hydraulic
  • Impact/Trauma
  • Does not Apply
  • Cold Water
  • Failed Rescue
  • High Water
  • Solo Paddling

Accident Description

HELICOPTER RESCUE GOES BAD ON THE SAN MARCOS RIVER

Near San Marcos, Texas: January 3, 1992

DESCRIPTION: The San Marcos River is, under ordinary conditions, a gentle Class I stream fed by large springs. Other than downed trees and occasional riffles the most common obstacles are man made, including low water bridges and dams. Conditions on Friday, January 3, 1992 were anything but ordinary. December 1992 was one of the wettest on record, and the river was running 5 feet above normal.

Bruce Reynolds was a trained kayaker who had taken lessons in Texas and North Carolina. He was an active marathon canoe racer and was known as a strong boater. As a member of the Austin Fire Department he had taken some swiftwater rescue training. He had made arrangements to boat the Guadalupe River on Saturday, but had Friday off and decided to warm up on the San Marcos. Some would say his biggest mistake was paddling this flooded river alone; others would argue that the San Marcos is easy enough to be paddled safely by an experienced whitewater kayaker. Few would argue that he should have attempted to shoot Martindale Dam without backup.

Martindale Dam is a turn-of-the-century structure which at one time provided power for the world's largest cotton gin. The dam is approximately 12 feet tall and slopes downward at about 60° rather than dropping vertically. At the bottom of the drop a concrete apron extends roughly 10 feet downstream. Because it slopes into the river it doesn't create a hydraulic like a steeper drop except at much higher flows. That Friday the water was creating a huge stopper wave.

No one knows what went through Bruce's mind as he approached the lip of the dam. Certainly he was apprehensive; an eyewitness said he scouted from his kayak, then paddled upstream a bit to build up speed for his run. One must wonder if he understood the difference between a stopper and a hydraulic. While both situations require a similar approach, self rescue in the event of trouble is different.

When Bruce hit the wave it knocked his paddle out of his hands and spun his kayak sideways, trapping it in the trough of the stopper. It was 4 pm. For the next two hours he would hand surf it. The eyewitness called the local fire department, then retrieved Bruce's paddle and tried to get it to him, but he was too far away. 

 

Most swiftwater rescue classes, especially those designed for firefighters, don't spend much time differentiating between the types of dams and the currents they produce. Most firefighters have seen footage of dams at flood stage, but can't explain how the hydraulic works. They do know that a "drowning machine" is a place of strange undertows and killer currents that can suck in boats, trees, and anything else that comes too close. Perhaps the reason that Bruce did not bail out is that, as a firefighter, he believed that it was safer for him to wait for rescue. Had he turned over and bailed out (or even popped his sprayskirt and let the kayak fill up with water) the main current would have pushed him out downriver.

 

The Martindale Fire Department is a small volunteer organization with limited funds for equipment and training. It is a dedicated group of men willing to put their lives on the line for others. I have been a member for over a decade, working under several different chiefs. Since I am an outfitter on the San Marcos and other Texas rivers past chiefs have relied on me during river rescues and body searches. I assumed the current chief would also do this. However, a lengthy drought had reduced the need for river rescue. The current chief was not aware of the whitewater skill resources available in his department and in the community at large. The Fire Department arrived within minutes and began surveying the situation. An incident commander, the person who would be in charge of this rescue, was chosen and he formulated a plan.

The plan was to pass a rope upstream of the dam with the help of two canoers who had arrived at the scene. The rope would then be lowered to Bruce, who would be pulled to one side, out of the "hydraulic" that trapped him. When the rope was lowered over the dam it got caught on a post sticking out from the river at mid-stream. Bruce was able to grab the rope and pull himself to the right side where he was flipped by the curler  that existed where the side eddy entered the stopper. Unfortunately, he either did a quick hands roll or the current rolled him up, so he didn't have to bail out. This happened at about the time when I arrived at the scene.

I was out of town when the call came in and would not arrive on the scene until an hour later. After returning from visiting friends on the Texas coast, I noticed my fire department pager had been activated. Assuming a fire, I started gathering my bunker gear. Then I heard a communication explaining that a kayaker was stuck in the hydraulic below Martindale Dam. I loaded my 14' raft, 200 feet of river rescue rope, throw bags, paddles, and PFD's and headed for the site. While I was loading I heard a special page for Firefighter Tom Goynes to come to the Martindale Dam immediately. I happened to pull out onto the highway in front of two local kayakers who were returning from a day of boating. They realized that I don't normally drive so fast, decided something was up, and followed me to the scene.

Since I had been paged by name, I assumed that once on the scene I would be allowed to do whatever I thought  needed to be done. In retrospect I should have located the incident commander, reported in, and explained my plan to him. My strategy was simple: I would use available paddlers, including the two expert kayakers who followed me, to man the raft. Then, with my long rescue rope tied to the stern as a safety line in case we got sucked in, we would paddle up from downstream and get close enough to Bruce to throw him a line. It was 5:00. Many firefighters and emergency personnel were on hand so it was easy to get volunteers to man the safety line.

As I approached the dam I heard people yelling at us to get back, to get out of the river. I paid little attention because after years of rescue work I've become accustomed to spectators yelling warnings at me, especially around dams. I didn't realize that the person yelling at me was the incident commander. Because we were approaching Bruce from the left side of the river, where the current was strongest, I thought that the river was keeping us from getting close enough for a throw bag. But the incident commander was worried about losing a whole boatload of people to a drowning machine. I now decided to move to river right, where a strong upstream current in the eddy would help us.

I moved the raft to the other side, deputized a whole new bank crew, and made another attempt. This time we got closer before I heard my fire chief telling me to back off because a helicopter was on the way. As the bank crew pulled us back I looked up at the chief in disbelief and repeated the word in the form of a question, "Helicopter?"

I got out of the raft and ran to the chief to ask why a helicopter was being used for this situation. He explained that he didn't want to lose a raft load of four men trying to save this one kayaker. I explained to him that the situation was not that dangerous, but bringing in a helicopter at dusk would be. There were well over a hundred spectators  around, and considering the power lines downstream and the trees on river right a helicopter should be used only as a last resort. I also explained that a kayaker who had been hand-surfing for two hours would not be able to hold onto a rope. I was thinking about an incident several years ago when a helicopter had dropped a young girl to her death. She had be stranded on a bus that had washed into the Guadalupe River. The chief now gave me permission to make the attempt.

We made one last run toward Bruce, confident that we would be allowed to save him. But I did not realize that the chief was not the incident commander. The assistant chief, on the other side of the river, was. Once again he called us off and our crew pulled us back.

At 6:00 pm, in fading light, a MAST helicopter from San Antonio arrived. They landed to survey the situation from the ground, then approached from downstream and hovered a few feet above the dam. The man that they lowered from the helicopter was 23 years old. He was sitting on a Jungle Penetrator, attached to the Hoist installed in the Helicopter.  The Kayaker was supposed to end up on this device as well, and be additionally secured by a strap.  But this was not an easy rescue, and things started to go wrong. First, the Medic was lowered all the way into the water.  Immediately his legs were blasted downstream by the current.  To compensate for the downstream pull he was pulled back upriver and lifted, but this caused him to collide with the dam itself. This was attempted multiple times before Bruce (the Kayaker), who at 240 pounds outweighed his rescuer by 75 pounds, grabbed the crewman around his legs in a bear hug. The Medic reached down and was holding Bruce by his life preserver, so Medic lost the use of his arms and legs, so he could not signal to the helicopter or secure Bruce to the Jungle Penetrator.  When the Pilot initially lifted the Medic out of the water, the Kayak was lifted as well.

Meanwhile the pilot was having his own problems. If you lower a crewman on one side of your aircraft you have to compensate. The crewman was on the right side, and the pilot had his controls as far left as possible. At this point Bruce's full weight was suddenly applied. The pilot's only choice, other than sliding sideways and crashing into a building on the right side, was to go up quickly.

The airman raised the helicopter to 50 feet to clear the trees and then began hoisting Bruce and the Medic upward. The safest thing would have been to keep Bruce low, lowering him as soon as possible to the ground. But it is apparently Army policy to get the victim into the helicopter immediately so it can land. The Medic states that he told Bruce to hang on tightly and not to try to get into the helicopter by himself. Whether Bruce could hear this, or whether he was mentally coherent at this time no one knows. Certainly the cold temperature, his wet and exhausted condition, and the downdraft of the helicopter could have made him hypothermic. At the last minute, as the helicopter skid came by, Bruce lunged for it and fell to the ground. First responders on the scene attempted CPR and transported him to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. The autopsy revealed massive injuries, and it is believed that Bruce died instantly.

AUTHOR: Tom Goynes

AFTERMATH: Probably no incident that I have been involved with has affected me like this one. I (and many others) lost untold hours of sleep agonizing over what went wrong and how I might have done something differently. It was amazing how the entire community grieved for the loss of this kayaker that few had ever met. Even people who were not there reported losing sleep. My heart went out to the helicopter crew, and especially to the young man who actually had contact with Bruce before he fell to his death. It was in the middle of this grieving process that the Martindale Fire Department got a letter from Bruce's widow.

Mrs. Reynolds, in an uncommon show of human compassion, wrote a thank-you letter to our department. She talked of the times that Bruce had come home late at night following a failed rescue or a fire, and had agonized over all the things he might have done differently. She knew our grief, and told us that it was not our fault and she appreciated our efforts. She enclosed a check for $100 to purchase much-needed equipment. This remarkable act of kindness helped many of our members heal, and I pray that this article will also prove to be a positive action, perhaps preventing another such accident elsewhere.

ANALYSIS:

1) Boaters should never run floodwater alone. Many surprises happen even on familiar creeks, especially after a long drought. A second experienced boater greatly improves your chances of rescue if something goes wrong.

2) If the rivers in your area have been low for a while and you find yourself with high water, remember that you're probably out of practice and start out cautiously.

3) Don't depend on outside rescue efforts. Learn self-rescue techniques from keeper holes and hydraulics. Remember that rescuers may not understand the situation, and their lives may be endangered. You probably know more about rivers than they do!

4) If you live in an area where there is danger from whitewater or floods and possess swiftwater rescue skills, introduce yourself to your local fire department or rescue team. Many need help with equipment and training. Although there are restrictions preventing outside volunteers from helping firemen with rescues, competent individuals can offer to train firemen in swiftwater rescue and offer equipment to those who have none. Since the incident I have formed the Martindale River Rescue Team which will automatically be in charge of future swiftwater rescues in this area. Furthermore, I can have river people volunteer for the river team even though they are not regular members of the firefighting team.

5) Rescuers must realize that helicopters should be a last resort in river rescue. If they are used the crews should be trained in the proper techniques. The Texas Department of Public Safety now uses a ring that is lowered to the victim or handed to him by a crewman lowered from the aircraft. Once the ring is around the victim and the rope is pulled up, a strap tightens around him making it impossible for him to fall. DPS policy is also never to lift the victim higher than is necessary, keeping him close to the ground in case something goes wrong. Hopefully the Army can learn these techniques.

6) Swiftwater rescue training should make more of an effort to explain hydraulic currents and to differentiate between them and other dam-related phenomena like stopper waves. Many firemen have seen so many scenes of motorboats being eaten by dams that their fear of dams in general is perhaps too great. Boaters themselves must also appreciate this difference.

Join AW and support river stewardship nationwide!