A couple of kayakers came on scene (one of them a friend and colleague – WCU Park + Recreation professor Maurice Phipps) and I directed them to search downstream of the PLS. The search continued and Charlie Walbridge (who was in the area on a NRS sales trip) came on scene. About an hour later the Jackson County Rescue Squad (JCRS) came on scene after searching upstream with a female eyewitness. There was some confusion concerning the PLS. When I interviewed the female eyewitness, she pointed to the same exact location the young male eyewitness had pointed to as the PLS. Bingo, this was the spot I had been saying was a “danger zone” for a decade. I regularly conduct rescue scenarios in this area with this knowledge in mind. This was an especially tough search area due to the boulder jumble and sieve. I approached the JCRS IC (incident commander) and tried to relate my search results. The IC ignored me initially. When told who I was (experience and level of training) he readdressed me with questions as to my knowledge of the rapid. The JCRS began to search in earnest in the area of the rapid I directed them to. No visual was obtained after multiple searches. With darkness upon us, I had a discussion with the IC and it was decided the JCRS would continue the search into the night. I advised them to wait until the water level was lowered (Duke Energy had been called and stopped the dam controlled water release), as it would take 7 hours or so until the water level went down. JCRS gave up the night search around 11:00 PM having not found the victim.
I began a detailed search at 7:30 AM of the rapid from my canoe. I searched every choke point (strainers, rock sieves, narrow points and shallows) slowly and methodically. No visual was obtained for the mile and a half below the PLS. I left my canoe at Tuckasegee Outfitters and hiked back upstream on the railroad tracks. I went back to the PLS at Double Drop Rapid and met with several western North Carolina rescue squads (Haywood County, Cherokee, Macon County and JCRS.) I had called Shane Williams (IC of water rescue for WNC) earlier to advise of my search results (Shane had been in several of my training and certification courses from the late 90s and is one of my favorite co-instructors) he decided to concentrate the operations on the PLS and 50 yards below. They had several rafts in the water, one equipped with an underwater camera. Around 12:15 PM one of the squad members called out that they had obtained a visual on the victim in the big eddy on the river right side at the bottom of Double Drop. They already had gaff hook poles in the water. It was some 2 hours later that the deceased body was pulled from the water with a drag hook bar. Westcare Paramedics and JC Sheriff’s deputies were on scene as well.
Documentation ensued and operations were halted with a de-brief.
Later, around 4:30 PM James Jackson, owner of Tuckasegee Outfitters and president of the Tuckasegee Gorge Association called and asked if I wanted to give an interview to Heather Graff, reporter with the local ABC News affiliate WLOS.
Around 5:00 PM James and I met the reporter and photographer. I asked if they wanted to drive down to the river site where the fatality occurred and do the interview there. They immediately agreed and we drove to the site. The edited version of the interview was run on the 10:00 PM, 11:00 PM and then 8:00AM news as a headliner story. The edited version was well done for the most part. WLOS edited out the portion where I gave the rescue squads credit for a job well done. My main point was ” wear your pfd, don’t become a statistic.”
In retrospect I am not sure I would have been able to effect rescue even if I had been on scene when the incident took place considering the lethal combination of #1 no pfd and #2 impairment. The victim immediately sank out of view upon capsize from his pool float chair which was his watercraft, yes, that is correct, pool float chair! The evidence revealed the apparent weapon, an over abundance Bud Light, multiple crushed cans were found in the float and several cans of BL were floating in the big eddy at the bottom of Double Drop as well.
The lack of wearing a pfd was the overwhelming causative factor in this tragic fatality of *********, a 22-year-old recent graduate of WCU.”
By Sam Folkes
June 3, 2010