This
is a preliminary report regarding an accident I witnessed on the
Russell Fork. A more complete report will follow after the
responders on the scene have conferred and clarified their views of
what occurred.


On Sunday,
October 6, 1996, Ken Ross, a very competent boater from Tallahassee,
Florida, suffered a near fatal swim on the Russell Fork River at
Triple Drop. Luckily, efforts to resuscitate him were successful.
After resuscitation, he was evacuated via helicopter to a hospital in
Bristol, Tennessee.

The
incident occurred at the first drop of Triple Drop. The first of the
three drops is a river wide ledge, the center portion of which is a
slanted shelf terminating in a horseshoe shaped hydraulic known to be
very sticky.

The
flow was higher than usual, 800 cfs dam release and approximately 300
cfs natural flow. The generally preferred route is to follow a seam
to the right of the horseshoe shaped hydraulic and punch the hole.
An alternate route (perhaps considered a sneak by some) is to run a
five foot ledge drop to the left of the horseshoe shaped hole.

Many
seasoned and competent boaters encountered difficulties with the line
to the right of the horseshoe shaped hole. On the day of the
incident, several boaters got stern endered on that line and one open
boater got stopped by the hydraulic at the bottom of the drop. On my
trip the previous day (at a comparable flow), at least two competent
and seasoned boaters got surfed in the hydraulic, wet exited and swam
the entire rapid. The boil line at the horseshoe shaped portion of
the hole extended out 10 to 12 feet or more from the hydraulic.

Ken
attempted to boof the drop on river left, following the line of
another boater in his party who successfully ran the drop. He
apparently did not have enough speed and got side surfed in the
hydraulic at the bottom. In an effort to extract himself from the
hydraulic, he back paddled into the horseshoe shaped portion of the
hole and nearly pulled free of the current several times. After two
to four minutes of surfing, flipping and rolling in the backwash, Ken
wet exited his boat and attempted to swim for safety.

The
backwash in the hole continually pulled him back in. Boaters in the
eddy began mobilizing a rescue effort. Numerous ropes were thrown at
Ken but he was unable to see them and/or reach them. After Ken had
recirculated 12 to 15 times (each re-circulation taking 10 to 20
seconds), he appeared to lose consciousness and was floating face
down as he recirculated. Some boaters began initiating a plan to
send a boater in after him when we saw Ken’s hand rise to the surface
of the water, holding a rope. We quickly pulled up the slack and
towed him to shore.

Although
Ken had managed to grip the rope, we speculate that it must have been
his last conscious act or a reflexive act. As we pulled him toward
shore, it was apparent that he was completely unconscious. His eyes
were open and revealed no spark of life. His skin was a very pale
blue and cold to the touch. He was facing upward but making no
effort to pull his head above the water.

We
pulled him out of the river, lifted him onto a flat space on the rock
shelf and determined that he had no pulse. We began mouth to mouth
resuscitation and CPR. After 5 to 10 minutes, he began breathing on
his own. It took another 45 minutes for him to regain a state of
semi-consciousness.

Although
his pupils responded to light and his skin color returned, he was
unable to speak except to utter short responses to medical questions
such as whether he was cold, would he like to sit up, etc. He knew
that he was on the Russell Fork, but appeared to have no memory of
the surf, the swim, etc. The only sentences he uttered were “What
happened?” and “Am I dreaming?”

While
stabilizing the victim, our group observed a commercial raft run the
drop and then intentionally bring the bow of the raft about to surf
in the hole just a few feet away from where the incident occurred.
We began coiling ropes in case a raft customer was unlucky enough to
fall out of the raft.

Another
commercial raft guide radioed for help. Two paramedics from the town
of Haysi responded by being ferried across the river at Garden Hole
(the put-in) and then running with their equipment in hand (including
med. kits, oxygen tank, mask and stretcher) approximately 1+ to 2
miles down the railroad tracks to the site of the rescue effort.

Initially,
it appeared that we would have to evacuate Ken up the steep hill to
the railroad tracks. This effort would have been hampered by the
lack of a back board. We were considering using a kayak as a
stretcher when we learned that a helicopter was on the way.

After
making a couple of passes, the helicopter landed downstream at El
Horrendo and then performed an heroic landing on the large rock in
the middle of Triple Drop (which rock creates the constriction that
forms the second drop). Ken was stabilized and air lifted from that
point and taken to a regional hospital in Bristol. According to a
physician/kayaker who was then supervising Ken’s care, it appears
likely that he would be hospitalized for at least a day or two. The
entire rescue, resuscitation and evacuation effort took approximately
two hours.

The
quality of assistance from the local paramedics, the fire department
and the helicopter pilot was exemplary. Ken’s condition at this time
is unknown, but he appeared stable when he was evacuated from the
river. A more complete report will follow after the responders have
had time to confer and clarify their perception of the events.

by
David M. Cox
From The Eddy Line, November 1996