ROCK HILL — On a muggy and overcast Sunday morning, the Catawba Rivers current threw Reid Whitesides into a pipe doubling as a tree, mailbox or any other strainer that can trap victims or their rescuers in the water and rocks.
His arms and legs flailed as the rivers pressure pushed him against the pipe, gushing a relentless stream of water against his head and holding his body tight against the unmoving object. Finally, after putting up what a teammate called a good fight, Whitesides, worn out and wet, dived over the pipe and made it back onshore.
If you look at it on top, it doesnt look that strong, said Whitesides, peering at the river. He has been a member of the York County Emergency Response Team for about nine months.
But what most dont realize about the river which moved calmly at the dam on India Hook Road until about 10 a.m. Sunday is the power of the water, he said. Once youre in it, it will sweep you right downstream.
And, because a number of boaters, kayakers and fishermen are expected to venture out to the river this summer some of them with alcohol members of the York County Emergency Response Team, York County Sheriffs Office, Rock Hill Rescue Squad, Lancaster County EMS and Lancasters Specialized Technical Advanced Response (STAR) team took to the river for a daylong training session, courtesy of the county response team.
The team, a nonprofit founded in 1988 thats made up entirely of volunteers and depends on donations and dwindling county support to survive, performs swift water rescues, water-related searches, low-angle rope rescues and rescue and recovery operations, said Terri Cook, team commander.
Training started last Friday night, and gave rescuers a 20-hour crash course on swift water rescue. They spent four hours inside the classroom. The rest of the time was spent in the water for real world operations, he said.
They learn about foot entrapment and self-rescue, how to stabilize a drowning victim and how to tell when attempting a rescue might simply be suicide, he said.
Sometimes, rescues boil down to life over limb, Cook said.
No limbs were lost on Sunday. Instead, rescuers dived into the water during contact swims and rescued one or more victims trapped in the middle of the river. They rehearsed a scenario where they were trapped by the strainer and forced to overcome it. They also did an exercise where rescuers held onto a grapple attached to a zip line, grabbed their victims jackets and glided back to shore before swapping places.
When she finished saving a victim, Crystal Wedra said the water was cold and the current strong.
Shes been involved in water sports for a decade, she said, but a member of the response team for about eight months. Her advice to people on the river: Be aware of the water levels and always wear a life jacket.
Rock Hill Rescue Squad member Hunter Harrison, whom an instructor called his ace in the hole, took his first swift-water class on Sunday. His role as a victim was a pretty smooth ride, he said, but his role as rescuer was more up his alley.
Its a reward being able to help people, he said.
Ricky Burgess, an instructor with Rescue Training Specialties in Greenville, tugged on a rope made to float on water as his students glided from an island of rocks to the rivers banks. He estimated that the current moved at a little more than 2.5 miles per hour but hit with the force of 136 pounds.
An average person can bench press that much weight, he said, but he asked how long theyd be able to hold the weights without rest.
Swift water is relentless...powerful, he said. It never lets up. Were training the divers not to beat the water, but to outsmart it.
Its strong; itll pull your feet out from under you, said Anthony Villeneuve, a member of the Lancaster STAR team. Victims might start out in Fort Mill and end up in Lancaster County in 10 minutes.
In the water, victims are at the rivers mercy. The key to survival, he said: Stay calm, float and find a smooth spot in the water. He stressed that victims shouldnt panic when rescuers swim toward them.
Stay calm...let us do the work, he said.
The Catawba River is beautiful, Cook said, but jagged rocks also make it a nightmare for rescuers forced to maneuver around them.
Divers, he said, contend with limited access points to the river and with inexperienced victims who underestimate the danger.
Cook said responders often rescue people who wind up submerged because they didnt wear a life jacket. Others drink alcohol while out on the river, while some use swimming pool rafts and tubes instead of equipment that can take the rivers aggression.
Last month, rescuers saved a woman who had been thrown into a tree after her kayak capsized. Fortunately for her, she had on a life jacket and emergency personnel found her before the sun went down.
But thats not always how the story ends.
Before trainings became routine, rescuers used grapplers to hook victims lost in the water. Years ago, when the emergency response team recovered the body of a child who drowned and required a closed casket funeral, team members decided it was time to end that practice, Cook said.
Now, rescuers don $8,000 worth of equipment in the summer and $12,000 worth of equipment in the winter to rescue swimmers and kayakers who become nervous when the waters current increases.
But donations for the team have been down, Cook said, although demand for $400 equipment which includes helmets, boots, swift water vests and oxygen kits increases.
Thats what it takes to keep people safe, Cook said. We want to serve our community.
And to give closure to a family thats lost somebody to the water, added Louis Pawloski, dive team leader.
Jonathan McFadden • 803-329-4082