2 rafting deaths in 2 days on Ocoee River in Polk County

2 rafting deaths in 2 days on Ocoee River in Polk County

August 26th, 2013 by Jeff LaFave in Local Regional News

Rafters take to the Ocoee River rapids in Polk County in this file photo.

Photo by Tracey Trumbull/Times Free Press.

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The Ocoee River claimed another life Sunday, the second in two days at the popular commercial rafting venue and former Olympic whitewater course.

The Polk County Sheriff's Office said a woman from Smyrna, Tenn., died after her party's raft became stuck in the first rapid below Ocoee Dam No. 2. It was in the same area in which an Atlanta woman died almost exactly 24 hours earlier, authorities said.

According to information from the Polk County Sheriff's Office, both women were tossed from their rafts after encountering steep drops on the rapid called "Grumpy's," which stretches about 100 yards below the dam.

Saturday's victim, a 45- to 50-year-old woman, was among two ejected from the raft. One rider was brought back aboard. The victim was able to grab onto a rescue rope and hold on while rescuers attempted to tug her to safety, but she lost consciousness just before reaching the shore.

On Sunday, the Smyrna woman was among several people thrown from the raft in the rapid. While her friends and family were safe, she was not able to reach the riverbank. When rescuers brought her ashore, on-scene CPR was ineffective.

Both women were taken to the Copper Basin Medical Center in Copperhill, Tenn., where they were pronounced dead. Neither woman's name was released Sunday.

The sheriff's office could not confirm if the two victims were customers of the same rafting company. Outfitters contacted Sunday said they had no comment about the fatalities.

Officers with Tennessee State Parks and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency are investigating the deaths. A news release from the Polk sheriff's office said parks and wildlife officers reported that all the raft guides involved in both incidents "appear to have done everything they could to effect rescues of all parties involved."

The Ocoee No. 2 Dam was discharging just half as much water Sunday as it was at the same time Saturday, according to the Tennessee Valley Authority.

TVA's website said the dam was discharging 3,245 cubic feet per second into the waterway 30 minutes before Saturday's incident. It was the first time since 7 a.m. Thursday that discharge broke 3,000 cfs, according to TVA.org.

The flow was 1,673 cfs at 11 a.m. Sunday, less than half an hour before the second fatal toss.

TVA spokesman Scott Brooks told the Times Free Press on Saturday the river flow was higher than normal but did not reach the cut-off level.

"We have a specific guide level where we would notify the rafting companies to pull people out of the river," he said. "I can confirm that that did not happen [Saturday]."

According to newspaper archives, the weekend's deaths were the first since two rafters died within two weeks of each other in 2011 on the Ocoee. Andrew Silvershein, 16, of Broward County, Fla., was tossed from a raft and lodged under some rocks in the Class IV rapid called "Mikey's" on June 19, 2011. That was two weeks after Jay McElroy, 37, of Arlington, Tenn., died in a Class IV rapid called "Humongous."

More than 300,000 people visit the Ocoee each year.

Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at jlafave@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6592.