On June 6 New York's Esopus Creek was the setting for a frightful pinning and a desperate rescue attempt. The action was witnessed by dozens of paddlers on the scene for the annual slalom races. With the river running bank-full, the races had been cancelled and paddlers were enjoying high water on this class 11-111 stream. The victim, Gordon McKinney, was paddling tandem with his wife accompanied by fellow club members from Rhode Island. As the group approached the take-out the McKinney's took on a good bit of water.
Continuing on towards the take-out without bailing they broached on a bridge pier. Their downstream lean did not save them; the pier was a steel girder and the boat folded instantly and settled in completely underwater. Although the victim's wife was washed free at once, McKinney himself was pinned with terrific force between the bridge abutment and the canoe. Realizing that someone was trapped inside the canoe, two AMC paddlers eddied out behind the bridge abutment to offer assistance. Climbing onto the framework of the bridge, they attempted to hold the victim's head above water. One of the rescuers used a knife to try and cut thigh straps and free McKinney's legs, but almost all of his body was underwater making it was difficult to tell what was going on. Observers believe that the canoe folded despite the downstream lean because of the narrowness of the girder, and that the folding boat and girder combined to trap his legs. Eventually the river, which was surging 10-12 inches at a time, pushed McKinney under and he lost consciousness.
As the two men under the bridge struggled against the rising water, a rope was lowered down to them from the roadbed. It was hooked in, and after considerable communication problems force was applied from shore. The seat which the rope was fastened to broke and the line pulled loose, cutting the hand of one of the rescuers. A raft was lowered, and more manpower was brought to bear. They tried to give mouth to mouth resuscitation to Mr. McKinney, who was by now mostly under water. Firefighters arrived, and a man rappelled down the abutment. A steel winch cable from a fire truck was attached to the boat. This powerful device pulled the canoe right up the abutment, out of the water, until McKinney could be freed. He was hauled to the top of the bridge where CPRwas initiated. A faint pulse was found, and he was transported to a hospital where he died that night without regaining consciousness.
Bridge pilings are easy enough to see and avoid. Pinnings, while rare, are frequent enough to cause paddlers to give them a wide berth. The way all the groups on the river pitched in was impressive. A lot of people put themselves on the line. Communication was difficult and better leadership might have helped get things done faster. But I'm not sure how you take charge and establish a chain of command with unrelated groups on short notice. When firefighters arrive they expect trouble and have a leader already picked. Paddlers have no such hierarchy. Certainly if the McKinney's had dumped their boat prior to continuing downstream they might not have lost control of their canoe; I suspect that the extra water made the pinning worse. But with the takeout close by, I'm not sure that their decision to "ride the river out" was unreasonable.