published Monday, June 27th, 2011

Reminders of a river’s peril

Almost every recreational activity involves some peril. The level of danger, however, varies considerably. Walking, for example, is generally safe. Rock climbing and rafting, two popular outdoor activities here, are far more dangerous. The deaths of two rafters on the nearby Ocoee River in the past month is a poignant reminder that danger is an ever-present companion in some leisure-time pursuits.

The deaths — the first on the river in six years and the sixth and seventh in the last two decades — understandably have prompted questions about the safety of rafting on the river. There are no simple answers, but that is no excuse to avoid the hard work of discovering what caused the loss of life.

The 24 rafting companies along the river already are working co-operatively with regulatory agencies and law enforcement officials to review and, if necessary, update safety rules and procedures. The two deaths require that. So does sound business practice.

Rafting on the Ocoee is a mainstay of the Polk County economy. And no wonder. The river provides an attractive, even exhilarating mix of adventure and excitement in a setting hard to duplicate elsewhere. It attracts thousands each year and if some of the inflatable rafts running the whitewater hit a rough patch and toss passengers overboard, that’s part of the experience. The possibility of such an occurrence is part of whitewater’s lure.

The result of such an event is usually not life-threatening. Indeed, serious injuries are rare, and deaths rarer still. That’s why events of the last couple of the weeks are so shocking.

In the first instance, a raft carrying six passengers flipped and dumped its occupants into the water. Five rafters made it back to the raft, but the sixth, a 37-year-old man from Arlington, Tenn., was declared dead when he was pulled from the river. Initial indications are that a pre-existing condition might have played a role in his death.

In the second incident, a 16-year-old from Florida and five others were tossed from a raft as they traversed rapids in the river. His leg became lodged in rocks and he was held underwater until guides could extract him. He had a pulse when rescued, but died on the way to a hospital. There’s nothing at this point to suggest that the deaths of the two men were anything other than tragic accidents in the most classic definition of the word.

By all accounts, rafting operators followed the state’s strict safety procedures prior to and during the two expeditions that turned deadly. The on-going investigations and the companies’ review of their operations should in time help determine if something else can be done to improve rafting safety. Whatever the outcome of that work, those who raft the Ocoee or other whitewater venue should need no reminder that doing so involves an element of risk.

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