Volunteer divers train for rescue in Catawba River

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comMay 19, 2013 

  • Donations to the York County Emergency Response Team can be made on the team’s website, www.yorkcountyert.com. Anyone interested in volunteering can contact Terry Cook at 803-372-7593 or tcook41338@gmail.com. A volunteer form can also be found on the website.

— On a muggy and overcast Sunday morning, the Catawba River’s 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 river’s 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 doesn’t 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 don’t 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 you’re 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 Sheriff’s Office, Rock Hill Rescue Squad, Lancaster County EMS and Lancaster’s 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 that’s 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.

She’s 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.

“It’s 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 river’s 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 they’d be able to hold the weights without rest.

“Swift water is relentless...powerful,” he said. “It never lets up. We’re training the divers not to beat the water, but to outsmart it.”

“It’s strong; it’ll 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 river’s mercy. The key to survival, he said: “Stay calm, float and find a smooth spot in the water.” He stressed that victims shouldn’t 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 didn’t 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 river’s 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 that’s 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 water’s 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.

“That’s what it takes to keep people safe,” Cook said. “We want to serve our community.”

“And to give closure to a family that’s lost somebody” to the water, added Louis Pawloski, dive team leader.

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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