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River Access, Hazard and Incident Reports

Nancy Kell Death due to Tow Tether
Author Last Post

Date: 2019-02-24
River: Red Creek
Victim: Nancy Kell
Reports by: Ken Durr and Bill Durr
Location: about three miles west of Laneville, WV
Water level: Medium-High (AW reported 465 CFS – Green level)
Difficulty: II+ (at that point in the river)

Report by Ken Durr:

A group of seven boaters set out to run Red Creek from Laneville to the Dry Fork of the Cheat. Air temperature was approximately high 50s, but getting colder. Winds were becoming gusty making communication difficult. All were experienced boaters. All had taken swift water rescue classes. About three miles into the run, in relatively flat water, we took a left hand turn around an island and approached a spot with a pile of wood, mostly branches, extending 4-5 feet from river left. To the right of this strainer was a clear channel approximately 10-15 feet wide, and then another strainer extending 10-15 feet to the island.

Bill Durr, leading, eddied out river left about 15 feet above the channel and then ran it. I eddied out at the same place facing downstream. Nancy then eddied out ahead of me, facing upstream, just upstream from a log protruding a few feet from the bank at head or shoulder height. I warned her not to drift into it, but she hit it, flipped, and I saw the boat run through the channel upside down. It did not stop or slow at any point; there was no attempt to roll, and no apparent swim. The next boater down, Josh Barza, asked me what to do, I said to follow the boat, thinking odds were she was still in it and possibly incapacitated. Other boaters followed him.

The boat was soon out of sight and I could not know what the pursuers had found, but thinking that it was also possible that she had no longer been in the boat, I took out river left and began scouting the river on foot, starting at the strainer and walking down, scanning the river in approximately the area that the boat went, but also looking along the far shore, thinking that she might have ejected without us noticing. As I scouted down the shore I met Bill Durr coming up. He asked where Nancy was. I said she must be downstream because I could not see her here. I went back up river scanning the same area again. Elapsed time at this point was probably 4-5 minutes. 

I then saw Nancy’s PFD and helmet 2 or 3 inches under water at the spot where the channel began, just beside the river left strainer. She had not previously been visible to me there—other boaters had also gone by without seeing anything. I began blowing my whistle and did not stop. I jumped on and into the upstream side of the river left strainer and was secure in it, up to my waist in water. I pulled Nancy up, facing downstream, and held her head out of the water. After 30 or 40 seconds, because she was non-responsive, it was very difficult to keep her head up, and there were no other boaters around, I sought an alternative. I checked around her body with one hand and felt a taught strap (I later learned that this was an elastic cow tail tow tether) directly below her, extending from her PFD to, I believe, a branch protruding from the strainer about a foot down. I took Nancy’s knife from her PFD and cut the strap. She immediately floated feet first, head up, downstream.

I was stuck in the strainer for one or two minutes but eventually got free by shifting my weight. I got back in my boat and headed downstream looking for Nancy. About an eighth of a mile down, I found Josh and Bill administering CPR to Nancy on a gravel bar. Josh and Bill began CPR at around 1:10. I got out and helped them carry her to an island. Josh knew CPR and continued performing it, with Bill and me helping him. We also administered rescue breaths at Josh’s direction. After about five minutes Charlie Duffy arrived and instructed me to go for help. I boated about a quarter mile downstream and found a farm house on river right—the occupants called 911 and I led one of them upstream to the site.

Two others in the party had pursued the boat towards river right, initially believing Nancy would be close by. They eventually grounded the boat a substantial distance downstream.

At about 1:50 Bill, Charlie, and Josh had stopped performing CPR. Josh then also went for help. Bill, Charlie, and I began setting up ropes to cross the approximately 40 foot channel between the island where Nancy was and the river right shore where medical personnel were arriving. I crossed to the island, and Bill and I helped Charlie carry Nancy to a line that angled downstream to shore, Charlie clipped her in and walked her to shore. Paramedics then evacuated her.

Report by Bill Durr:

Put in at 12:15 on Red Creek with a group of experienced boaters and day was going well. Eventually our group came to gravel bar that forms a rapid with a channel on the left with lots of wood (38.975187,-79.458631). The wood blocks most of the channel and the river constricts. At the top of the rapid there is a small eddy river right that you can catch and walk the rapid or set up to run the narrow channel far river left. Above the river left channel is an eddy that has a large strainer in it with a decent amount of space behind to catch and run the channel. I went first and ferried to behind the strainer and continued down the far left channel. Caught an eddy river left, immediately below the last part of the channel. From this eddy I could not see all the way to the top. 

The group started to come down the channel. I saw Ken catch an eddy about half way down and heard whistle blasts. I saw Nancy's boat floating down the rapid upside down with no movement. Got out of my boat and proceeded up the river left bank. When I got to Ken I quickly looked, but didn't see anything in the channel and heard that no one had seen Nancy come out of her boat. So I got in my boat and proceeded to try to catch up to her boat.

Came to the next rapid where the river splits around an island and took the left channel (38.975591,-79.46172). At the bottom of it I saw Josh and he was blowing his whistle. Got out on the island and went to him. Josh said that he was chasing Nancy's boat and it and the other paddlers in or group went down the right channel. We went up to try to look down the right channel. Got to a spot where we thought we saw the right channel and did not see any boaters or boat. I started back to my boat to proceed downstream, this is when Josh started blowing his whistle (about 8 minutes after leaving to chase the boat). He was heading upstream and into the water. Nancy had been floating down and he got her to a gravel bar next to the island. She was unresponsive and we started CPR and rescue breaths. Ken arrived after about 3-5 minutes and we paused to get Nancy fully out of the water and brought her over to the island. Continued to administer CPR and breaths. Charlie arrived and Ken went to get help. Continued CPR 40 minutes total but Nancy never became responsive or regained a pulse.

Things that were helpful:

• Two members of the party involved in the rescue/recovery knew CPR. Josh Barza is WFR certified.
• Very experienced paddling crew.
• Strong teamwork.
• Good group gear, especially long ropes.
• Fast response time from the Tucker County Police & EMS Teams.
• Great assistance from the local landowner.

What could have potentially been done differently?
• We should have had one person in the party stay with Ken. 
• We could have considered that because Nancy floated out of the eddy she likely hit the channel at the far left and that that was the place she was most likely to have snagged, and so could have looked harder there earlier.
• Eddy top of the rapid, river right and portage the rapid. There was a very easy portage through a grass field.  
• Stop/Gather/Discuss before running a rapid with a strainer at the bottom.  
• Ken could have used a rope to self-belay/wade to Nancy. The rope could then be used to secure Nancy via a carabiner to prevent floating downstream. 

Finally:This incident suggests reconsideration of the widespread use of tow tethers.

CCW: Any loose-fitting tethers should be removed AT ONCE!



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