Two deaths reported on Ocoee River
Rafters were ejected both Saturday and Sunday not far from the put-in at a rapid called “Grumpy’s.”
Tragedy struck the Ocoee River over the weekend, with two separate deaths on two separate days. Rafters were ejected both Saturday and Sunday not far from the put-in at a rapid called “Grumpy’s.” Martina McGruder, 52, of Rex, GA passed away Saturday; Katherine Tyler Luna, 37, of Smyrna died Sunday. TVA is objecting to media reports over the weekend that stated the water was running above 3000cfs (cubic feet per second).
According to press releases from the Polk County Sheriff’s Department, a rafting accident was reported around 11:20 on Saturday just below #2 Dam, and CPR was reportedly in progress. A Tennessee State Park Ranger, Sheriff’s Deputy, and Tennessee Highway Patrol officer arrived at the same time, just minutes later, and rafting guides were performing CPR on McGruder. Law enforcement continued CPR, the report said, until EMS arrived.
Once EMS arrived, the guides and several bystanders assisted in moving McGruder from the riverbed to the roadside and into the EMS unit. She was transported to Copper Basin Medical Center where she was pronounced dead some time later.
According to Gerald Marshall with High Country, McGruder and her sister fell overboard just after putting in. He said the raft guide, who has been with the company since 1985 and worked the Nolichucky before coming to the Ocoee, was able to get the sister back into the raft, but Martina came up further down the river. Marshall said she was not pulled under the water at any time, came up immediately, and was able to acknowledge the rescue rope and safety boat.
Marshall said the victim swam toward the eddy on the right and was able to grab the rope, but lost consciousness just before reaching the shore. He said the entire process took only 10-15 seconds. River guides moved her the remainder of distance to the bank.
Marshall said neither he nor any of those involved were doctors and there is not currently an autopsy report, but it did not appear to be a drowning case. He said she was conscious when she grabbed the rope and it was possible she had a heart attack or stroke.
On Sunday, according the Sheriff’s Department report, Luna was among several to fall out of their raft when it got stuck just below the put-in. All but Luna were able to make it to shore. The victim was taken to the bank by a group of kayakers, where CPR was immediately started by a Park Ranger. As with the Saturday incident, raft guides, Park Rangers, and other bystanders moved the victim up to the roadway. CPR was continued until EMS arrived. Luna was pronounced dead later at Copper Basin Medical Center.
Scott and Mary Mantooth of Sunburst Adventures said their thoughts were primarily with the families and the river community that mourns both tragedies.
“Although we can never totally eliminate the risks that are inherent to the activity, we hope we can rise to a better system to predict dangerous water levels, as well as a method to reduce serious injuries and tragedies,” Mantooth said, adding he would like to prevent another incident such as what iccurred this past weekend due to an unexpected and/or unannounced water release.
The Ocoee is controlled by TVA through a series of hydroelectric stations – Ocoee Dams #1, 2, and 3. Early reports cited the water level above 3000cfs in the riverbed, which exceeds the amount allowable for commercial rafting. TVA’s website said the dam was discharging 3,245 cubic feet per second into the waterway 30 minutes before Saturday’s incident.
According to Mike Bradley with TVA, the number taken from the website and used in those early reports included both the water in the riverbed and the water in the flumeline combined into one number.
Marshall said there was a surge going on, but he did not know how high it was. He said the river surged as part of the process any time it was running and he was not qualified to say how high it was and that TDEC alerted them if the water was too high for rafting. Marshall said TVA engineers were working on the river Tuesday morning, checking and running levels to ensure the system was working properly and that all those involved - rafting companies, TVA, and TDEC - were very concerned about the safety of customers.
“It was tragic,” Marshall said, adding, “Nothing is absolutely guaranteed or safe in this life.” He said 300,000 people go down the river each year and unfortunately accidents do occur. Marshall said High Country guides had an average of 8 years experience and his company had not had an incident requiring medi-vac in four years.
Bradley said the water is monitored in real-time and several monitors are located throughout the gorge. He said despite reports to the contrary, water was “not that high at the site.” He said the equipment measures water elevations and calculates flow rates going over top of Ocoee #2, the dam that supplies water for rafting.
A press release issues by TVA says the flow rate during the incident on Saturday was 2,300-2,600 cubic feet per second. On Sunday, the rate was 2,200-2,500 cubic feet per second.
Under agreement, TVA notifies the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation when the flow rate exceeds 3,000 cubic feet per second. If that happens, TDEC suspends commercial rafting. Kelly Brockman with TDEC said that did not happen over the weekend.
According to Brockman, when a TVA engineer sees that the water is flowing too fast, the engineer notifies the Park Manager (Bridget Lofgren) by telephone. Lofgren will then dispatch Park Rangers to the put-in to stop commercial traffic from accessing the river.
Bradley said TVA was able to use their real-time monitoring devices to calculate the water flow in advance in order to know where the levels are headed. He said when alerts go out, it is because the calculations show the faster water is on the way, and Park Rangers will stop commercial traffic before it becomes an issue.
The Mantooths said they wanted to send heartfelt thanks to the river community and citizens of Polk County for their outreach during the tragedy. They gave special thanks to TDEC State Parls staff, Polk County EMS, and the staff of Copper Basin Medical Center.
“Please remember the families and others suffering in your prayers,” Mantooth said.
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