Whitewater risks: Deaths bring scrutiny to rafting safety

Whitewater risks: Deaths bring scrutiny to rafting safety

June 24th, 2011 by Kate Harrison Belz in News

A water release by the TVA provides a water playground for rafters and kayakers along the Upper Ocoee River.

Photo by Tracey Trumbull/Times Free Press.

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.