Accident Database

Report ID# 915

  • Caught in a Natural Hydraulic
  • Does not Apply
  • High Water

Accident Description -- Washington Post story by Angus Phillips


In Life and Death, a Reminder of Whitewater's Power

By Angus Phillips
Sunday, July 31, 2005


When the Tygart River claimed the life of John Mullen last weekend, his colleagues at The Washington Post and regular readers of this outdoors page lost a man in full in the prime of life.

Mullen, 37, drowned in the turbulent West Virginia whitewater last Sunday after running the first of two drops at Valley Falls. He was pinned underwater for several minutes after capsizing by recirculating water at the base of a 10-foot waterfall.

His paddling partner, Patrick Henry, 39, of Fairfax, stood ready with a safety rope, "but there isn't any rescue scenario when the guy doesn't come up. You're supposed to come up," said a disconsolate Henry, who swam after Mullen and spent half an hour working to resuscitate him when he finally surfaced.

For the last three years, Mullen has written the weekly Sunday feature Outside Line on this page, in addition to working as a full-time copy editor on the sports pages. He was a formidable figure in the newsroom, well over six feet tall, loose-limbed, tanned, perpetually smiling, all muscle and sinew. "John was a horse," Henry said. "He exercised every day, didn't drink alcohol and ate perfectly. The guy was ripped with muscles."


Four years ago, Mullen took an interest in whitewater kayaking that came to dominate his life. He was fond of mountain climbing, biking, running, lifting and other recreational pursuits, which he often covered in his columns, but in recent years he got swept away by paddling.

"He paddled whitewater 280 days a year," said Jason Beakes, a former member of the U.S. whitewater slalom team and a frequent companion of Mullen's. Beakes said he recently took Mullen to Great Falls for his first descent of the famous, 30-foot-high "Spout" near the Virginia shore, and after it was over Mullen said he intended to spend 200 days at the falls next year.

That ambition may have contributed to his death. Beakes and others in Washington's elite kayaking community counseled Mullen that before he devoted so much time to a place as treacherous as Great Falls, he should work in more moderate waters solidifying skills. In particular, Beakes said, he needed to work on his Eskimo roll to make sure he could execute the critical maneuver in the roughest conditions.

"I told him to go up to Valley Falls," Beakes said. "It seemed like a good place to work on basics -- tough, but not too threatening. John had a tendency to come out of his boat. It was his greatest weakness and he knew it. He was diligently trying to gain composure so he could do multiple rolls" instead of exiting the boat if his first attempt failed.

"That's why it's ironic," Beakes said. "This was basically a step back for him, to work on that."

Valley Falls State Park, near Fairmont, W.Va., lies 10 miles below an Army Corps of Engineers dam that controls the water flow. The half-mile run over two, 10-foot waterfalls at the park is popular with skilled paddlers. In certain conditions, it can be run safely even by intermediates under supervision, said Tom McEwan, longtime dean of the Washington whitewater community, who occasionally takes students from his Liquid Adventures paddling school over the falls.

McEwan prefers relatively low flow for his classes, and last took a group over Valley Falls on July 4, when the river ran at a level of 4.97 feet on the gauge below the dam and flowed at 326 cubic feet per second (cfs). At noon Sunday, when Henry and Mullen ran it, it was at 6.75 feet and running at 1,545 cfs, according to Army Corps of Engineers data, a level McEwan described as significantly more dangerous. Henry said he and Mullen had never run that particular stretch of river but had run in water he considered much more difficult as recently as the day before on the nearby Upper Youghiogheny.

But from Henry's perspective, it was runnable and safe. Indeed, he ran both falls first without incident, then portaged back up the bank to set up a safety line for Mullen. According to Henry, Mullen went over the first waterfall in good form, hit the foaming whitewater below upright, but his kayak bobbled on a boil as he pulled out of the rapids at the base of the falls and flipped. Mullen tried to roll up once and failed, Henry said, and was setting up to try again when he and the boat were drawn back toward the waterfall by the recirculating water at its base.

At that point, Mullen exited and he and the boat were separately thrust under the deluge with astonishing ferocity. "They both went down hard and neither one came up for a long time," Henry said. Finally the boat surfaced, alongside bits of Mullen's gear, but the first Henry saw of his partner was when the top of his helmet appeared downstream, just 30 feet from the next falls. Henry leaped into his boat, followed the unconscious Mullen over the falls and swam to his rescue in the pool below. But it was too late.

Ron Fawcett, the park superintendent, said it was the first paddling fatality at the falls in his 10 1/2 years there, though "we've had to rescue a few. It's a very dangerous place," Fawcett said, "and the water was up that day."

Many in the Washington paddling community were shocked by the accident. While whitewater is universally acknowledged as dangerous, the loss of skilled paddlers remains rare. "In all of paddle sports," said Gordon Black, director of safety education for the American Canoe Association, "fatalities average about 60 to 70 a year, and about two-thirds of those are generally males fishing in flat water without life jackets." Serious whitewater paddlers wear life jackets at all times on the water, as Mullen did.

Black, who at 54 continues to tackle big water in his kayak, said the loss of a paddler like Mullen reminds all whitewater enthusiasts of the inherent risks in the sport, but is unlikely to scare any away. "We do paddle in the face of some hazards," he said, "but there are rewards that we consider worth it. There are thrills, the satisfaction of taking on a challenge, fitness, the beautiful environment.

"This is a wonderful sport. My kids do it. But you have to remember there are risks, and no matter how well you prepare, the risks still exist. Some of the finest boaters occasionally die."

And sometimes they are among the finest people. Friends and colleagues of Mullen gathered at The Post last week to toast his memory. He was remembered for his bright spirit, his lofty prose in the Outside Line and his utter devotion to the thing he loved best, whitewater paddling.

"His life story makes perfect sense to me," said his younger brother, Kurt, "and if it had gone on, I know he would have just kept getting better and better at being John Mullen."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company -- Initial report in the Washington Post


The Valley Falls section of West Virginia’s Tygart River is famous for a succession of runnable waterfalls. John Mullen, 37, was a strong kayaker and serious slalom racer who worked as copy editor for the Washington Post. He trained seriously for paddling, and planned to use Valley Falls to prepare for a run on Great Falls of the Potomac later in the year. He and a friend arrived at the Tygart on July 24th. Angus Phillips, in an excellent piece for the Washington Post, said that the river was running 6.75 feet that day. This is well above the suggested level of 4.7 feet and this extra water made the drops significantly more difficult. Mr. Mullen’s friend ran first, then set safety. Mullen landed the drop cleanly, but was pulled back into the waterfall after flipping on the boil. His roll attempt failed, then the falling water hit him, pushing his kayak down deep. After a very long wait Mr. Mullen appeared 30 yards downstream. His friend followed him over the next falls and into the pool below, but by then it was too late.


Post Copy Editor Killed in Kayaking Accident

White-Water Enthusiast, 37, 'Died Doing What He Loved' on W.Va. River

By Tara Bahrampour Washington Post Staff Writer Monday, July 25, 2005; Page B02

A copy editor for The Washington Post's sports section who wrote often for the newspaper about his experiences with rowing and kayaking died yesterday in a kayaking accident on the Tygart River in Marion County, W. Va. John Francis Mullen, 37, of Arlington was with a friend in Valley Falls State Park when his kayak was sucked underwater for several minutes after going over a 10-foot waterfall, Deputy Kevin Alkire of the Marion County Sheriff's Department said. The friend pulled Mullen from the water and administered CPR but was unable to revive him. Mullen was pronounced dead at the scene, Alkire said.

John Mullen, competing in a white-water slalom event last year in Dickerson, was on a constant quest, his younger brother says. "He was my hero. He made my heart expand." (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post) "Everybody said they were doing what they were supposed to be doing," said Alkire, adding that Mullen was wearing a life jacket and helmet and that the men were using a safety line. "It's just an unfortunate accident."

Mullen's friends and family described a quietly determined man with a rare ability to balance physical challenges with a life of the mind. "He was a real spiritual guy, really well-read, and the gravitas and the importance of the river, and of nature, was something that was not lost on him at all," said Micah Pollack, an assistant sports editor at The Post who had kayaked with Mullen. The tall, athletic-looking Mullen had spoken of some close calls in the five or six years since he had taken up the sport, said Pollack, adding that Mullen's love for it -- and for the tight community of paddlers he was part of -- overshadowed the dangers. Among other highlights, he competed in trials for the Olympic team for the 2004 Athens Games. "It's totally trite and cliche, but he died doing what he loved," Pollack said.

Michael Wohl, who met Mullen 17 years ago when the two were college exchange students in , recalled his friend's love for words and ideas. "His search for meaning was completely intertwined with his love for sports," he said. Mullen -- known as "Jay" to his family -- grew up in the suburbs north of Boston . His parents live in Gilford, N.H. Kurt Mullen described his elder brother as being on a "constant quest" that included a recent interest in surfing. The brothers were planning a surfing trip to . "I was really excited because my brother and I had never taken a trip together as adults," he said, adding that while he himself wasn't as engrossed in sports, "I just wanted to be with my brother one time when he was doing something he loved." The younger Mullen recalled being "a typical sullen 13-year-old" when his brother, then 17, implored him to find a passion, pressing books on him and eventually inspiring him to become a writer. "He was my hero. He made my heart expand, and to think he lost his life today just . . . kills me," the brother said. Steve Seeber, a kayaker who also had skied and mountain-biked with Mullen, described him as an experienced paddler who "ended up in the wrong place in the wrong position, which can happen pretty much anywhere." John Mullen, competing in a white-water slalom event last year in Dickerson, was on a constant quest, his younger brother says. "He was my hero. He made my heart expand."

Alkire said that spot was particularly treacherous and that the part of the river has two steep waterfalls. Swimming is banned there and kayakers must sign a release form to enter, he said. "It's a once- or twice-a-year thing there," he said of drownings in that location. "There is a lot of undertow, a lot of eddies, a lot of overhanging rocks underneath the water." Alkire said that after going over the 10-foot waterfall, Mullen was pinned underwater for several minutes before going over a second, higher waterfall. "You get under something like that and the current is holding you down," Alkire said. "It won't let you out until it's ready to let you out." Mullen had worked full time as a copy editor at the Post since 2000 and part time since 1993.

In a note yesterday to staff members, Leonard Downie Jr., The Post's executive editor, described Mullen as "a respected editor" who was "very popular with his colleagues. . . . He will be sorely missed in the newsroom and by readers who shared his devotion to white water." Friends and family members emphasized that Mullen was no daredevil and that he had a healthy respect for the river. Just last month, in a column, he recalled deciding against kayaking a dangerous-looking river in Colorado . Still, the water called to him. In a column three years ago, he wrote of "my first look, and plunge, into a roaring hydraulic named Calamity," in a river in West Virginia . "As I drifted, picking up speed and getting hit by cross-angling waves, I felt what I later realized was the sensation I had when as a boy I jumped a chain-link fence and climbed to the peak of a mammoth water tower, hanging from the outside on a straight-drop metal ladder, to get a night-time glimpse of faraway Boston. It was a hyperfocus energized by pulsing fear, but still you wanted more."

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