Twin fatalities over weekend bring scrutiny to conditions on Ocoee River

Twin fatalities over weekend bring scrutiny to conditions on Ocoee River

August 28th, 2013 by Shelly Bradbury and Alex Green in Local Regional News

Mary and Scott Mantooth, owners of Sunburst Adventures rafting company, speak about the circumstances around, and unfortunate loss of one of their customers this past Sunday while rafting on the Ocoee River. This was the first fatality the rafting company has had since being founded in 1976 in Polk County, Tenn.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.


This story is featured in today's TimesFreePress newscast.

A guide with Rolling Thunder is tossed out of his raft while running a rapid on the Ocoee River named "Grumpy's" where two women died this past weekend. The first woman, Marnita McGruder, 52, from Rex, Ga., died Saturday and the second woman, Katherine Tyler Luna, 37, from Smyrna, Tenn., died in a separate incident on Sunday. According to information from the Polk County Sheriff's Office, both women were tossed from their rafts after encountering steep drops on the rapid which stretches about 100 yards below the dam.

A guide with Rolling Thunder is tossed out...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

More than 100 rafters were waiting on the shore for their chance on the river when Marnita McGruder fell out of her raft and died on the Ocoee River on Saturday.

The guides knew what was happening. The guests didn't.

Just yards away on the ramp, Noah Perdue, a guide, tried to distract his guests as he waited to take them out, and he watched the rescue attempt. No one panicked.

"It was more like helplessness, because you're just watching people," he said. "There's nothing anyone can do. If you put in, you're putting yourself at risk."

That was Saturday, when 51-year-old McGruder died. Perdue was there the next day, too, when another boat flipped at the same rapids and another woman died, 36-year-old Katherine Tyler Luna, of Smyrna, Tenn.

"It was definitely more somber on Sunday," Perdue said. "Because it had just happened. We were like, 'Wow.'"

Now the Ocoee rafting community is trying to figure out how two women died on the river within 24 hours, under nearly identical circumstances. After Sunday's death, some people on the river were saying that the Tennessee Valley Authority was letting too much water through Ocoee No. 2 Dam, causing unsafe conditions.

But some are casting blame for the "Grumpy's rapids" deaths on a 2009 landslide that shifted the riverbank nearly 15 feet, shut down U.S. Highway 64 for five months and made the rapid harder to negotiate.

And many are calling the two deaths a freak coincidence.

"Nature can be very unforgiving," Scott Mantooth, owner of Sunburst Adventures, said Tuesday. Luna was on the river with Sunburst when she was thrown from the raft.

He looked over the Ocoee River on Tuesday afternoon and pointed out points along Luna's fatal trip: the concrete ramp where rafts go in. The lead into the river. Whiteface Rock. Grumpy's rapids -- no more than a rock lip and a bowl where the Ocoee's waters run over and maelstrom endlessly.

"It's ironic," he said, pointing out the rounded, brown heads of dull rocks along the river's shallow bed Tuesday. "Historically, we have fewer injuries when the water's higher."

Tuesday morning, local raft outfitters and representatives from TVA met at the dam that marks the start of Middle Ocoee for a demonstration of water levels.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which is investigating the deaths, requested the meeting. Commercial rafters aren't allowed on the river when water flow hits 3,000 cubic feet per second -- a mark that some guides claim the river hit over the weekend, despite TVA's report that the levels fluctuated between 2,200 and 2,600 at the times of the deaths.

On Tuesday, TVA officials took the water from 1,400 cfs to 2,900 cfs to give raft outfitters an idea of what each water level actually looks like.

For Kip Gilliam, president of the Ocoee River Outfitters Association, watching the levels hit 2,900 convinced him that the water was within the legal limits during the weekend accidents.

"They proved to me today that they did not go over the cutoff on Saturday or Sunday," he said. "I was surprised at how much water was in this river, and I've been here 16 years."

But other guides say outfitters are hesitant to criticize TVA, which has the power to cut off all commercial rafting on the Ocoee as the contract between raft outfitters and TVA is renegotiated. Rafting on the Ocoee attracts 230,000 visitors per year and is a $43 million industry.

The water levels at the second dam are checked by three devices, said Annette Moore, the Ocoee plant manager. And the data shows that the water never peaked over 3,000. There's no way all three devices would have misfired, she said.

"I'm confident that those were correct," she said.

With all the rain this summer, the river has been running consistently higher than normal, said Tom Barnett, TVA river forcast center manager. The Ocoee has hit the 3,000 cubic foot cutoff twice this season, and commercial traffic was suspended each time. When the water gets too high, TVA alerts TDEC, which alerts rafters.

At the time of the accidents, the flume -- which siphons water off the river and carries it downstream to TVA's power generators -- was running at 27 percent capacity and that's why outfitters might not have been able to see it operating, he said. The system is automated.

"The flume was open and the water was flowing through the flume," he said.

Tuesday, Mantooth ran his gaze along the wooden flume and explained its significance.

"I can tell by its color that it's full," he said. "It's darker and you can tell the wood is saturated."

He said the flume is about 12 feet deep and 12 feet wide. It resembles a Depression-era film prop and runs 5 miles along the Ocoee Gorge's southern ridge. It carries about 1,000 cubic feet of water a second, which is water the river doesn't see, creating gentler rafting conditions. If the flume isn't running, the river gets the full effect of the dammed-up water. That can be tough for anyone to handle, Mantooth said.

"I personally have nearly drowned in [Grumpy's] ledge," he said. Combined with improvements to stop water rushing underneath the 100-year-old dam, Mantooth said the wet summer and narrowed channel created a perfect and fatal storm.

On Saturday, TVA says river water was flowing between 2,300 and 2,600 cubic feet per second. On Sunday the flow was slightly less, at 2,200 and 2,500 cubic feet per second. Those numbers are the peaks and lows for the hour, Barnett added, not averages. Mantooth said he doesn't doubt their numbers.

High Country Adventures, the company that was guiding McGruder down the river Saturday, said its guides would never put in on the river if the water was too high.

The guides involved in Sunday's accident had been guiding for 28 and 12 years, Gerald Marshall, owner of High Country, added.

"This is not a static situation where you get there and the water stays at one level once you get on," Marshall said. "It takes a while to get on and go down there. When we came down the ramp and got ready, it was looking like everything was fine. We rely on the state to tell us the water is too high. That's our safety net, TDEC telling us that TVA released too much water."

Adventures Unlimited owner Carlo Smith said rafters must trust TVA to make the call on water levels.

"TVA has the gauges," he said. "If they say it's 2,800, it's 2,800."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at or 423-757-6525.

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepresscom or 423-757-6731.