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Grace Hookway kayaked the Ocoee River on Monday, but she skipped the first major rapid in the Middle Ocoee. Because it's the same rapid -- "Grumpy's" -- where two women died in separate incidents Saturday and Sunday after falling out of their professionally guided rafts.
Hookway shook her head as she stood on the side of the river waiting for her kayaking buddy to make it through the stretch, which is right at the beginning of the run.
"The first time I skipped it, I just thought, well it's my first time on the river, let's not do the hardest rapid," she said. "But now, I'll just avoid it. I don't want to be the third one."
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is investigating the deaths of Marnita McGruder, 51, of Rex, Ga., and Katherine Tyler Luna, 36, of Smyrna, Tenn. Six people have died on the Middle Ocoee since 1993, according to American Whitewater, a national nonprofit organization focused on preserving rivers and whitewater. McGruder and Luna bump that up to eight.
The deaths over the weekend are the first on the river since 2011, when two people died on the Upper Ocoee. Before that, the last recorded death of a customer on a commercial raft was in 1998, said Kip Gilliam, president of the Ocoee River Outfitters Association.
"It's a freak accident, two times in 24 hours," he said. "It's very seldom that we have accidents like this, and to have two in the same weekend is absolutely unbelievable."
About 4,700 people rafted the river Saturday, Gilliam said. Every year, about 230,000 adventurers flock to the Ocoee River, which is the most-visited whitewater river in the United States, according to a study by the University of Tennessee released in May. The Middle Ocoee contains Level III rapids, which require strong intermediate skills, according to American Whitewater.
McGruder was rafting with High Country Adventures, and Luna was on the river with Sunburst Adventures. High Country Adventures did not return a request for comment, and Sunburst Adventures declined to comment.
On Saturday, McGruder and another women fell out of their raft around 11:30 a.m., according to the Polk County Sheriff's Office. One woman was pulled back on board. McGruder grabbed a rescue rope but lost consciousness before she could be pulled to safety.
Some witnesses said it looked as if McGruder may have had a heart attack, but the results of the autopsy won't be available for several weeks.
A day later, Luna fell out of her raft with several other people when the raft was caught in the same rapid. She was unable to make it to shore and was picked up by two kayakers around 11:45 a.m.
Rescuers performed CPR on both women, and both were taken by ambulance to Copper Basin Medical Center, about nine miles away.
Early reports indicated that the river was running higher than unusual, but the levels were within the range considered safe for commercial rafting, according to the Tennessee Valley Authority.
At the time of the accident Saturday, the water was flowing between 2,300 and 2,600 cubic feet per second, according to TVA. On Sunday the flow was slightly less, at 2,200 to 2,500 cubic feet per second.
Commercial rafters have to get off the water at 3,000 cubic feet per second. If the water flow gets that high, TVA alerts the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and that agency alerts rafters, said TDEC spokeswoman Kelly Brockman. She confirmed that TVA never made that call.
"Commercial traffic did not stop," she said.
Gilliam didn't think high water flow affected the guides involved in the accident, who he said were very experienced.
"Both of the guys this weekend were very good raft guys," he said. "I can't quote years of experience, but I know one of them has been around since the 1980s."
And regardless of the official safe water level, the final decision on whether to raft is made by each trip leader, Gilliam said.
"They can make that call; if they don't want to go, they don't have to go," he said, adding that the weekend's water was high but not unusual. "We've been rafting on that same amount of water all summer. This is not the first time it's been at that level."
Keith Jenkins, owner of Quest Expeditions, agreed that the river has been high all summer.
"We probably had more high water this year than I can ever remember, and I've been around 30 years," he said. "It's not that they weren't experienced on high water. It did spike on them, which was unusual."
Brockman said McGruder and Luna were both wearing life vests and helmets.
"We're still in the investigation process, and it could take a few weeks," she said. "They pull certificates and they look at the waivers that were signed and that kind of stuff."
The river was full of rafters again Monday, a day after Luna died. And while some adventurers, like Hookway, opted to skip "Grumpy's," several companies were again running rafts through that rapid. The rafting industry on the Ocoee employs 622 people and generates $43.83 million in economic activity each year, according to the UT study.
Jenkins said he's more concerned about figuring out what happened Saturday and Sunday than he is worried about the effect the deaths could have on his customer base.
"Our pressing concern right now is looking at what happened and what took place," he said. "That's more important than the loss of business. Our goal is to provide a safe trip."
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6525.