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Accident Description


A SECOND FOOT ENTRAPMENT AT NANTAHALA FALLS

Nantahala River near Wesser, NC: September 4, 1993

SUMMARY: At

6:45 PM

on Saturday September 4, 1993 Jason Allgood capsized above Nantahala Falls. As he washed through the drop he caught his foot under a submerged ledge. Despite immediate rescue efforts by dozens of paddlers who were at the scene the recovery took far too long to save his life. 

DESCRIPTION: The Nantahala River is arguably the busiest river in the , with 250,000 people making the run each year. It is a roadside river, very pretty, with lots of places for people to watch. Nantahala Falls, the crux drop, consists of a long lead-in culminating in a moderate double drop. Originally rated Class V by Randy Carter in the 1960's and rated class IV by Nantahala Outdoor Center in the 70's, the drop is now considered Class III. Thousands swim through here each year without incident, and the construction of a protected pedestrian walkway makes the area popular with spectators. 

Allgood, 17, flipped his canoe in the bouncy lead-in above the drop. He swam into the eddy on river left just upstream of the falls, but lost his footing and was swept into the drop. He went over the first ledge, hit a submerged rock hard, then continued feet-first into the bottom vee. Moments later he disappeared from view; then the top of his helmet could be seen. He waved his hand above the surface, but his head remained under water. 

Ted Beuell and Debbie Ashton give their view of the rescue attempt: 

"We could see his helmet at or near the boiling surface, but he never broke free of the falls. He reached up, waving for attention. From across the river I began screaming, "Swim! Swim to him!" A red canoe came over the falls and seemed to run right over him. A boater with a paddle took up a position on river right and tried to stop the procession of boats floating downstream. A kayaker waiting in a side eddy made several attempts to surf out and give him the bow of his boat. Someone downstream, on the left bank, threw a line repeatedly. the victim finally got hold of the rope but he was pulled in a downstream direction, into the entrapment. He went limp and disappeared. People in the crowd were screaming  and crying. After 5 or 6 minutes a paddler with a rope tied to his waist  attempted to swim to him, but never made contact."

"Someone flagged a passing motorist, who used a car phone to call 911. An NOC guide came upstream into the left eddy, pushing a rubber raft. He solo paddled into the pourover and attempted to reach down for the victim. More NOC guides began arriving at the scene, and some desperate swimming and wading rescues were tried. An organized crew of NOC personnel finally secured cross-river ropes anchored to trees. (Editor's Note: A tag line rescue, using an enormous rock to weight down the rope, was tried at this time) A raft was rigged with nylon webbing, then attached to the cross line with a carabiner. Ropes were played out from shore,  and the raft was brought into position directly over the spot where the victim was last seen. Personnel in the raft probed the water with paddles. Once the body was located, rescuers reached down over the side. They could hold him up but not free him. A line was secured around the victim's chest, then the other end was walked upstream. Several people tugging from above the Falls were able to pull him out." 

"This procedure took about 40 minutes, and by this time the rescue squad had arrived at the scene. The body was transported to the right bank where emergency personnel took over. Needless to say, it was too late." 

AFTERMATH: NOC and Forest Service personnel were able to locate the probable site of the accident, a tapering crack a foot wide and several feet deep. After a decision-making process that involved no less than 6 Forest Service professionals and two other Federal agencies, the Forest Service filled in the area with concrete. Wayah District Ranger Michael Wilkins warned that this does not set a precedent for hazard reduction along the river corridor, and that each site will be decided on a case-by-case basis. 

SOURCES: Jim Levinka; Ted Buell; Debbie Anderson; Slim Ray; Gordon Black; Ann Tidwell; Mark McCoy; Michael Wilkins, U.S. Forest Service; Asheville Citizen-Times.

ANALYSIS: 

1) Heads-down foot entrapments pose a great challenge to rescuers. The victim is usually inaccessible, and there is very little time to execute a successful rescue. The fact that this rescue failed is not surprising and is no reflection on the well-trained professional and private paddlers who made the attempt. 

2) A similar foot entrapment occurred at the bottom of Nantahala Falls in 1990. At that time it was suggested that holding one's legs rigidly straight invites trouble when swimming steep drops. The best recommendation is to ball up, or at least to bend your legs when going over ledges. You must often fight hard to keep your feet near the surface.

3) Ropes thrown to assist foot entrapment victims must come from upstream; the throws the victim got came from downstream and only pulled him over. 

4) Several writers have decried the carnival atmosphere which exists at Nantahala Falls, blaming rafting outfitters for encouraging casual use of the resource. The fact is that the individual who drowned was a private paddler who seemed capable of handling himself in the water. It is more appropriate to learn what we can from this tragedy rather than blaming the people who make a living from the river. 

5) Other writers have advocated the caching of rescue gear, the stationing of "lifeguards", and the placement of a permanent cable across the river to aid in future rescues. None could, in my opinion, guarantee the fast recovery of a foot entrapment victim. These actions, however, might provide a false sense of security to the paddling public and minimize the danger of this rapid. 

6) Two techniques to keep in mind for helping foot entrapment victims are as follows: team wading, which can get four or more people out to someone, and placing flotation, like the bow of an unmanned kayak, into the victim's hands. 

7) In my opinion that Nantahala Falls is under-rated due to easy access and the fact that many paddlers have run it hundreds of times. There is a long lead-in, a top hole that is quite steep and can hold a swimmer, and second ledge, and continuous, though easy, rapids below. Considering the fatalities, near-drownings, and narrow escapes that have occurred there over the years my personal rating would be IV-.