Update: This article was updated July 24 after the news of the girl's death was confirmed.
UPDATE on July 24: The teenager was taken off life support Monday, according to friends and family of the victim. She did not survive.
Original story: A teenager who nearly drowned while whitewater rafting Sunday got caught in a rope that was thrown to rescue several paddlers who had fallen from their raft while traveling a Class III+ rapid on the Ocoee River, according to witnesses.
The rescue line had wrapped around the girl's leg, pulling her underwater, according to a husband and wife who pulled the girl from the river and held her head while raft guides performed CPR. The girl's life jacket had come off, making it difficult to pull her to safety, they said.
"I just did what we had to do," said Richae Thilo, the wife. "There was nowhere flat to lay her so someone had to hold her head, and I was the one right next to her. It was definitely a very scary, very surreal experience I never imagined I'd go through."
An investigation is being conducted by Hiwassee/Ocoee Scenic River State Park rangers who will be issuing a report at the conclusion of their work. They are not authorized to speak publicly about the incident until that time.
Thilo and her husband, Blake Thilo, were visiting the area from Michigan to see family. They were paired with another group and went with a guide down the middle section of the river.
They reached tablesaw — a large Class III+ rapid that outfitters consider a benchmark for the Southeast — sometime in the late morning. Paddlers in a raft ahead had fallen into the river. Guides threw ropes for the customers to grab onto, but the girl's leg got caught and she was pulled underwater, the couple said. The crews on the water scanned to find her but had trouble locating her. People on the shore yelled and pointed that she was downstream.
"We were looking where everyone was pointing and someone yelled 'downstream farther,'" Blake Thilo said. "We turned and saw her red hat floating, so we went down there. Everytime I tried to grab her, there was a dropoff. She'd go down the dropoff, so we'd go around, and I would try to grab her again."
Without a life jacket, he couldn't find a place to hold her and pull her into the raft, he said. The teen's helmet was still on, so he eventually got ahold of it and pulled her back into the boat. There wasn't a flat surface to perform CPR, so the group laid her down while Richae Thilo held the girl's head, she said. Raft guides from multiple outfitters came to help and perform CPR until emergency responders could respond.
The girl, 15, was taken to Erlanger hospital in critical condition. Her current status is not known.
The incident is the latest in what has become a dangerous season, although this is the first such incident involving a commercial rafting company in years.
Three people have drowned in the Ocoee since January, making 2019 an unusually deadly year. Two died in Ocoee Lake, which flows into the river, and a third, 26-year-old Cleveland resident Rondez Mee, drowned after falling from the banks near the Ocoee Whitewater Center on the upper section. Each of the deaths took place early in the year when the water was elevated due to record-setting rain.
The last commercial deaths came in 2014 and 2015 from rafters who suffered heart attacks, according to Ocoee River Outfitters Association Ryan Cooke.
Before that, the previous drowning came in 2013 when two women died about 24 hours apart. At the time, there had been six deaths on the Middle Ocoee since 1993, according to American Whitewater, a national nonprofit organization focused on preserving rivers and whitewater. The two women raised that total to eight. Their deaths were 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, a rafting outfitter president at the time.
"Statistically, this is the safest river in the United States for the quality of whitewater that we have," Hiwassee/Ocoee Scenic River State Park Head Ranger Angelo Giansante said. "You have an average of 300,000 people a year going down the river, and you have a total of four incidents that needed aid beyond first aid."
The Ocoee River is America's most-trafficked commercial paddling river.
"You are in whitewater, so there's always a possibility of something happening," Giansante added. "This is a real river with real rapids and real rocks and real consequences. At the same time, this has been a river that has inspired Olympians and inspired people who are not familiar with whitewater to get out and try. It's a very forgiving river, but incidents are going to happen when you deal with a very large number[of people]."
The rafting outfitters have been asked not to discuss the incident publicly by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, Cooke said. The association did issue a statement expressing its sympathy.