[On Saturday, November 1, 1997 Chattanooga kayaker Mike Reisman died following a tragic accident on the Ocoee River. To our knowledge, Mike was the first hard boat fatality to occur on the Ocoee, although there have been many close calls. There are many and conflicting versions going around describing what happened that day below Double Trouble, along with a lot of second guessing and Monday morning quarterbacking. A slightly edited (for space) version of an Internet posting by “GratefulEd@aol.com” is presented here, chosen because it was written by one who was on the scene and participating it the efforts to save Mike, it appears to be as factual as any I’ve seen, the writer had a paramedical background, and it is well written with proper respect shown for all the parties involved. – Editor]

This is the story of the death of Mike Reisman just below Double Trouble on the Ocoee on November 1, 1997.

I wanted to write to you about Mike’s death for a couple of reasons. For good or for ill, I helped work on Mike out there on the middle of the river, and my main concern here is setting the record straight about what was a very weird and tragic situation. I’ve also found writing to be a very therapeutic pastime — and given the fact that I’m still a little bit freaked out about the whole thing, I need this.

I was off the river at approximately 3:30 [that Saturday]. I hitched a ride up to the put-in, but as our car passed the shoals about 1/4 mile below Double Trouble… a guy ran out into the road and flagged down our car. He said that a guy was hurt in the middle of the river, and asked for a cell phone.

I used to be a volunteer firefighter and First Responder for a department right outside Chattanooga, and while I’ve let my certifications lapse, sometimes small help is better than none. So I jumped out of the car, scrambled down the rock pile to the riverside, borrowed a boat, and ferried out to the rock ledge in the middle of the shoals. When I got there, a couple of rescuers were just beginning to work on Mike. One of them, thank God, was a doctor — and I’ll write more about him in just a second.

They said that Mike had been ferrying across the shoals and had gotten flipped — and that while he was underwater he had taken a blow to the head which either knocked him unconscious or rendered him otherwise helpless. If I remember right, they said he was underwater for sixty seconds or so. The doctor reached Mike’s boat and tried to flip it upright but was unable to, and was also unable to pop Mike’s spray skirt. He said that… the grab loop [was] tucked inside.

So the doctor did the next thing he could think of, which was to unsheathe his PFD knife and to cut across the lap of the spray skirt. By doing so he was able to pop the skirt and get Mike out of the boat, but this was when things went wildly wrong — because the doctor cut too deeply and opened a long, deep gash high up on the inside of Mike’s right thigh.

That was pretty much the situation when I first got there — three or four people were dragging him out of the water and onto a small rock ledge, and they were trying to control the bleeding.

Mike was responsive when I got there, although it was obvious that he was confused and in pain. The doctor was holding compression on Mike’s leg wound, which was generally keeping the bleeding under control, and at his direction we made Mike as comfortable as possible with our PFDs and began to improvise a tourniquet. I wound up holding pressure on Mike’s femoral artery at his groin while someone else cut webbing for the tourniquet. We applied the tourniquet and continued the femoral pressure and the direct pressure on the wound.

Although the blood was mixed with water, it didn’t seem to be arterial — it was pretty dark in color and was mixed with a lot of fluid that looked typical of deep tissue injury. The doctor said he didn’t think the femoral artery had been hit.

As I held pressure (and then held tension on the tourniquet), I checked out Mike’s head wound, and it looked like he had slammed his head pretty well — he had a lump on his left temple the size of a fifty-cent piece which projected perhaps a half-inch and was an ugly shade of purple. It was just exactly in that spot which is all too easy to expose if you’re letting your chin strap ride a little loosely. I checked his pupil dilation, and while his pupils seemed wide to me, they also seemed equally dilated.

While we were working on Mike we kept talking to him — we were telling him that he’d be OK, we were saying his name, and we were trying to get him to talk back to us. He would occasionally screw up his face in pain. At first he was responsive to us — he answered questions, he reached out to hold our hands, and he complained of discomfort. But as time wore on (and the numbers of paddlers surround us grew), he began slipping. He complained of the cold, his tight clothing, and his inability to breathe. “I can’t see,” he kept saying.

We tried to sit him up in order to make his breathing easier — I was sitting on the rock with my arms around him and his head laid back on my shoulder — but he only got worse — he quit talking and became mostly unresponsive to us.

It was clear to us that we might save Mike from blood loss only to lose him to shock, so at the doctor’s direction we moved him from the small rock ledge to a larger one which was close by. Some of us had to wade through water to get there, and we had to be painstakingly careful not to drop Mike, because he was a pretty big guy and he was wet and slippery.

Park rangers were arriving at the road across the river from us as we were moving Mike. We got him laid out flat… with legs elevated… and while the doctor continued to maintain pressure on the leg wound we began to demand blankets, fleece, jackets, and anything else we could get to try to keep Mike warm. There wasn’t much of anything to use except PFDs — everyone was soaked and a cold rain had begun to fall.

Right about this time a paramedic named Tiger who had been out paddling joined us on the rock and went to work. He was a big help. He and the doctor kept checking Mike’s breathing and pulse. Finally, someone arrived with a spine board and a cervical collar, and we got Mike strapped onto the board. Tiger put the c-collar on him.

Mike lapsed into unconsciousness, and the doctor quickly turned management of the wound over to a bystander and crouched by Mike’s head. “Don’t do this, Mike…Don’t do this…” he repeated. Mike’s breathing slowed, and then stopped, and the doctor and Tiger began artificial respiration and chest compressions.

At this point, somebody with a bullhorn on the shore told us that a raft was at Double Suck, and that the raft had been directed to hurry to where we were and ferry Mike across… Someone arrived with a rescue basket, which is like a really long, shallow, plastic bathtub. We lifted Mike into the rescue basket and strapped him in while the doctor and Tiger continued to administer CPR.

Right about then the raft arrived. As they lined up by the rock, we lifted Mike in, and the doctor jumped in and continued chest compressions. I watched from the rock as the raft ferried him across the river and as the spectators helped lift the rescue basket up the rock pile to the road. Paramedics rushed Mike into the back of the ambulance and immediately began working to try to stabilize him.

The raft came back across to the rock, and I hitched a ride back over to the shore. After I climbed the rock pile, I asked one of the responding firemen for some alcohol foam to sterilize my hands with, and then I waited by the ambulance. I noticed that the ambulance was rocking back and forth, which meant that the paramedics were administering chest compressions inside. And although I didn’t check my watch, they must have worked on him for twenty or more minutes before they took off.

We stood around on the scene for a while. Lance, some of the other park rangers, the state troopers, and couple of the paramedics collected some information. I gave them my name, number, and address.

The doctor felt like shit. He told me he was mad at himself, and although the normal cliches like “You did the best you could”, “You did everything right”, and “That was a terrible scene” were all close at hand, all I could do was squeeze his shoulder and shake my head. I watched as he rode away with one of the park rangers.

Now they’re reporting on the news that Mike Reisman died of blood loss resulting from a severed femoral artery.

I don’t believe that, although we’ll never know for sure. I’m told the family has apparently declined to have an autopsy conducted. I think only one thing killed Mike — the utter lack of proper equipment to treat shock on an isolated scene. We had the training, we had the people, we had (barely) enough room to work. But none of that was enough.

I’ve seen a lot of people in shock, and they always react differently. Some act crazy, some mumble to themselves, some shake, some wander around like zombies. Some simply go to sleep. Like Mike.

That’s the end of this story. I’m sorry.

By GratefulEd
From The Eddy Line, December 1997