Teens rescued from Pigeon

By DeeAnna Haney | Jul 09, 2013
Photo by: Donated photo

What was intended to be a fun tubing adventure down the Pigeon River for two teens Sunday turned into a terrifying ride.

After several days worth of heavy rain last week, generally calm areas of the Pigeon became raging rapids.

Center Pigeon Fire Department Chief Johnny Pless said from information he received, the two teens, around 19 and 17 years old, had traveled from their home in Greenville, South Carolina, specifically for a tubing trip.

The two launched their tubes at the Canton Recreation Park with intentions to end their adventure near a friend's house in the Fines Creek area. But trouble was ahead.

"They didn't realize there were two low head dams inside the mill," Pless said. "I don't believe they were experienced rafters. They didn't know the Pigeon River and they didn't know where they were going."

When the rushing waters took them about a mile down the river and brought them over the dams, they were able to keep hold of their inflatable rafts. Once over the dams, though, they became caught in a hydraulic that they couldn't escape.

Luckily, said Pless, one of the boys was able to call 9-1-1 using his cell phone. It took crews about 15 minutes to locate them because the teens were unsure of their location. It then took another 30 minutes to rescue them from the circling waters. All in all, the boys were in the cold river for about an hour.

"We were able to get a rescue rope to them. The only way you can get out of that type of hydraulic is you pull the rope parallel to the face of the dam to the waters edge," Pless said.

Once to safety, one of the teens was OK while the other was suffering from severe hypothermia, he said. The boys were taken to the hospital where one of them remained until at least Monday.

Several fire fighters at Center Pigeon and other local fire departments are specifically trained for swift water rescue, but when it comes to high water levels in the Pigeon, Pless said it's best to err on the side of caution.

"The thing with the Pigeon, from Canton to its headwaters, it drops about 3,000 feet in elevation. That’s a distance of roughly 20 miles, so it is really moving when it comes through Canton," Pless said.

When water levels rise due to rain, the rapids can reach up to 40 miles per hour. The speed in addition to the steep slopes on sections of the river could be fatal.

Though the boys survived the swift waters of the Pigeon, 34-year-old experienced kayaker Richard Bradfield, of Kentucky, did not make it out of the river alive. After his kayak was spotted last Thursday without its passenger, an intensive search began, only to find Bradfield dead on the edge of the river near the Shining Rock Wilderness area late Friday.

Pless said the teens are lucky to have made it out alive.

"If God hadn't put that string in that boy's hand, we would have been there hours trying to get them out," Pless said, adding that the teen suffering from hypothermia might not have been able to hold onto the tube much longer.

Canton's water levels are beginning to gradually recede, and though Pless said it's safe to raft and kayak the waters at normal levels, people still need to be careful and aware of their surroundings.

"They need to be aware that it's not a gradual slope down that river. It's a steep downhill slope when it gets up and moving," he said.