published Friday, June 24th, 2011

Whitewater risks: Deaths bring scrutiny to rafting safety

A water release by the TVA provides a water playground for rafters and kayakers along the Upper Ocoee River.
A water release by the TVA provides a water playground for rafters and kayakers along the Upper Ocoee River.
Photo by Tracey Trumbull.
  • Whitewater rafting risks
    The Ocoee River offers adventure seekers an opportunity to paddle Class-4 whitewater but it is an inherently dangerous sport.
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Each year, more than 300,000 visitors flock to the Ocoee River in East Tennessee to ride its roller-coaster rapids and tumbling currents.

But the deaths of two rafters on the river in the past month — the first fatalities in six years — have brought new scrutiny to the rafting industry, prompting questions about the safety of the popular vacation activity and the river itself.

On June 19, 16-year-old Andrew Silvershein and six others on his raft were thrown as they barreled down a Class IV rapid called “Mikey’s.”

Silvershein’s leg became lodged in underwater rocks, holding him under. Though he still had a pulse when guides pulled him out, he died en route to the hospital. The teen — a Broward County, Fla., resident who was part of a group trip from a Georgia summer camp — was wearing a life jacket and a helmet.

Two weeks earlier and just a half mile downstream, a Class IV rapid called “Humongous” flipped a raft carrying Arlington, Tenn., resident Jay Mc-Kelroy, 37, and five others. Everyone made it back to the raft except McKelroy, who was declared dead after being pulled from the water. He, too, was wearing a life jacket and helmet.

The exact cause of McKelroy’s death is still being examined. Initial indications are that a pre-existing medical condition may have played a role, according to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

McKelroy was on a rafting tour with the Ocoee Outdoors outfitting group, and Silvershein was Big Frog Expeditions. Both have stated that their safety protocol was followed closely, and that the deaths resulted from highly unusual circumstances beyond their control.

“It’s a wild river and carries an element of risk we can’t always predict,” said J.T. Lemons, president of Ocoee Outdoors.

Larry Mashburn, a managing member of The Ocoee Adventure Co., echoed those sentiments.

“It’s not a Disneyland ride. It’s a whitewater river, and there are risks that come with that,” Mashburn said. “We know what kind of business we’re in and work hard to keep it as safe as possible.”

Mashburn said his company is still examining what led up to Silvershein’s death and reviewing its own safety policies.

It’s too early to tell whether the deaths will affect the rafting business, Mashburn and Lemons said, but their businesses are still taking daily trips down the Ocoee.

State investigating

Tennessee State Parks is investigating both incidents through multiple agencies, including Polk County Sheriff’s Office, Tennessee State Park Service and TVA.

The dam-controlled Ocoee claims some of the toughest rapids in the region, said Tisha Calabrese-Benton, spokeswoman for Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. The river provides a more adventurous paddle than the nearby Nantahala and Hiwassee rivers in and churns up more whitewater than the Pigeon.

The Ocoee is not considered a highly dangerous river, Calabrese-Benton said, and no area of the river is deemed off-limits.

“Nothing about the river is more dangerous than it always has been,” she said.

Rafting became popular on the Ocoee in the late 1970s, and its manmade Olympics course — developed on the Upper Ocoee for the 1996 Summer Olympics whitewater competition — soon created even more of a magnet for rafters and kayakers.

There now are 24 rafting businesses situated on the river’s banks. From late March to early November, large, inflatable rafts bobbing in the currents are a regular sight. Some tip over and it’s not unusual for passengers to be thrown out, but serious injuries are rare.

Including the two incidents this year, there have been seven rafting deaths on the Ocoee in the last 20 years, according to Calabrese-Benton. In one, a rafting customer had a seizure, while another was a raft guide who jumped in to swim to another raft, got caught in an underwater pothole and drowned.

“Each of these incidents is tragic, but given the numbers of people who visit the river each year, the Ocoee River has an excellent safety record, particularly when compared to other rivers across the country of similar difficulty,” said Calabrese-Benton.

State regulations set basic safety standards for outfitters. There must be a safety presentation for raft customers before any commercial river trip. Every guide must be certified in both cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid. And detailed liability waivers are standard procedure and must be signed by every customer.

And at big rapids like “Mikey’s,” a guide boat waits below to assist any passengers who tumble out. Mashburn said there was such a guide boat when Silvershein fell out and the guides helped free him — but it was too late.

“It’s a tragic accident,” said Mashburn. “Everyone here is taking it extremely hard.”

But he said he’s not sure what the company would do differently.

“There’s not any major changes we can make to the way we already do things. These [underwater] entrapments are just incredibly rare,” he said.

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rolando said...

Yeah. Risks. So when do they require seatbelts and airbags on the rafts?

June 24, 2011 at 8:23 a.m.

Since when do seat belts and air bags save motorists? People die in car accidents every day and although these make a difference, some people do perish. Really-seat belts and air bags? Rafting is a risk, life is a risk, we don't have control over many things in our lives. These deaths were tragic but regulate the industry? you might as well regulate the water or Mother Nature.

June 24, 2011 at 9:41 a.m.

Mr. Mashburn, I can think of one change that needs to be made. Start drug testing the river guides. People will surely spend an extra dollar to cover the cost of same, knowing their safety is being considered by guides who are competent and not strung out on dope.

June 24, 2011 at 1:03 p.m.

Mr. Libertarian, you are so entitled to your opinion. Not sure I understand your need to resort to name calling. Could it be demeaning another is yet another ploy you may use to get attention? And now...now I, too, have a right to my opinion certainly without being told how to think! Am totally capable of exercising my mind to make thoughtful decisions free from your "orders."

The critical point that is missing (among these posts) is a youngster lost his life and his family mourns such a dreadful loss. My heartfelt sympathy to the young man's family, as well as Mr. McKelroy's family members.

June 24, 2011 at 3:51 p.m.
LibDem said...

(smokymtntraveler: I think rolando was throwing out a hook to see if he could catch a fish.)

The deaths are tragic. However, I'm not sure we can regulate all risk and all excitement out of life. Two deaths, six years, 300k visitors/year. This is safer than my house.

June 24, 2011 at 5:59 p.m.
NorthChatter said...

So basically, over the last 6 years, you are 70 times more likely to be murdered in Chattanooga than to drown on the Ocoee.

One of the first things they tell you in the safety presentation before going down the river is that if you are in the water, keep your legs up...do not try to put your feet down or try to stand up...that is how entrapments happen on the boulders underneath.

Sadly, that is what happened to this young man and once your leg is trapped, with the volume of water, it is almost impossible to free yourself with a lot of assistance.

Tragic accident, but that is all it was...I pray for his family in their time of grief.

June 24, 2011 at 6:50 p.m.
rolando said...

No fishing involved, LibDem, nor straight comment either, smoky.

For God's sake, don't you people recognize sarcasm, irony, and/or a jab at useless gov't regulators when you see it?

Do you really think seatbelts/airbags would be of use on the ocoee, smoky? Neither do I -- after all, they are riding surrounded by airbags.

June 24, 2011 at 6:53 p.m.
LibDem said...

rolando: Sorry you were unable to read the sarcasm, irony and jab in my fishing remark. I guess it's a one way street.

June 24, 2011 at 7:21 p.m.
rolando said...

Oh, sarcasm came through loud and clear, LibDem. My response used your metaphor.

In any case, it appears you approve of "useless gov't regulators" who would require figurative belts/bags on whitewater rafts. Or did I misread that?

June 25, 2011 at 5:43 a.m.

Dang, Mr. Liber - you sure comprehend words according to your own agenda. You are completely out of touch with what happens on the Ocoee River as evidenced by your observation about the guides. And how does 2 people loosing their lives equate with playing basketball? Quite a microscopic comparison. In my "opinion" you seem to be a loose cannon who likes to make 'noise,' in an effort to get some attention. Now I could be wrong but you have a very rough approach in this forum by talking down to others.

June 25, 2011 at 4:45 p.m.
Ben123 said...

I just went rafting yesterday on the ocoee. This was my second time ever. I am about 115 pounds and decided to sit in the front of the raft. Little did i know there was these "olympic rapids" coming up. My guide informed us about them but i guess i never pieced it together that this was going to be a big rapid. Our boat consisted of 5 people the heaviest about 140 lbs. We were backsurfed on godzilla and then the right side of the raft flipped right as we hit humongous. I was thrown out immediately and was caught in the hydraulics. I used the method my guide taught me to get out and it worked. Afterwords, i was floating downstream bumping into rocks and swallowing a good amount of water. Guides threw me rope to hold onto from the shore and the first attempt failed. I was getting scared at that point. Finally i was saved by the second rope which seemed to take an eternity. I have a rooe burn and many bruises but i am just grateful to be alive right now. I had a lot of fun afterwords though.

June 24, 2013 at 8:37 p.m.
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