Hordes of extreme paddlers from across the South had descended on the steep upper reaches of the Nantahala for a much-anticipated inaugural whitewater release from the Nantahala Dam. The rugged section isn’t a typical paddling run, since water is diverted from the river bed to a hydropower plant.
That weekend the flood gates were opened releasing torrents of water, a paddling event that will be repeated five times a year from now on. Nantahala Outdoor Center volunteered some of its bus drivers to help move the hundreds of eager paddlers up and down the river.
Kelly was shuttling paddlers from designated parking areas to the put-in points — a route that took about 45 minutes. The large crowds already had him extra alert, and the generally un-rafted section of river people were navigating that day, which includes class IV and V rapids, had him a little tense.
“We were trying to be ready for anything,” Kelly said.
As he made the circuit, Kelly, a veteran kayaker himself, began to notice a spot in the river where a log was lodged. It’s what paddlers call a “strainer:” the river could pass through but solid objects, like people and boats, could be hung up.
Making matters worse, it was on the outside of a curve, where water travels the quickest.
Luckily, it turned out, Kelly had a clear view of the strainer from the driver’s seat of the bus. On his drive he had noticed several boaters struggle with it on their runs — but no serious problems, yet.
During one pass up the river, however, Kelly watched as a female kayaker in a purple boat came downstream heading right at the log. He would later find out her name was Sue Martin, an avid kayaker from Atlanta and single mother of two.
“She saw the tree and tried to get out of way,” Kelly said. “But I think fixating on it caused her to head toward it and she ended up washing up against it.”
She was paddling with a friend, but when her friend tried to assist her, he flipped and washed down river. As Kelly watched the scene unfold, Martin’s head went underwater, with her body stuck in the boat and pinned against the tree by the rushing current.
Kelly pulled the bus over, grabbed a rope and yelled to the 50 or so passengers that someone was drowning and he needed to go. He doesn’t quite remember the words he used, or if he turned off the ignition to the bus, but he took off running toward the river.
The current was brown, turgid and rushing, nearly six feet deep where the woman was still submerged toward the far shore. Kelly used the rope from the bus, tossing it toward Martin’s paddling companion in an attempt to pull him back toward her. But the other kayaker couldn’t make it upstream to help.
By now, other paddlers from Kelly’s bus had joined him with a rescue harness and a rope. They began assembling a rig so Kelly could enter the river safely without being swept away by the current. As the others fiddled with the apparatus, Kelly began edging into the center of the river.
Minutes had already passed since Martin had gone underwater.
Then, Kelly made a decision.
“If this is going to happen, this has to happen now, or she is going to die,” Kelly said to himself before inching further out into center of the current. He stopped waiting for any additional help.
As he moved crossstream toward the drowning woman, the water progressively got deeper and faster. Finally he was able to make a lunge for the log that was trapping her and use it as a support to get even closer.
He could barely see the tip of her purple kayak beneath the surface. He went underwater, grabbed her life vest and pulled her out of the water, imagining the worst.
“She was cold and unconscious,” Kelly said. “She was a pale grey color with blue hue in her lips. I didn’t think there was much of a chance.”
Standing in the rushing water, holding her body, he struggled to get a good seal between their mouths and administered several rescue breaths, not knowing if Martin still had a pulse, or if they would do any good.
She was still stuck in the boat against the tree, and Kelly struggled to free her but couldn’t. He lost his grip and she slipped underwater again.
The current pushing her against the log was too strong to pull her away, and she was losing more time. The only way to clear the log and free her body was to push her under it.
It worked, she popped up on the other side and floated unconscious downriver in her flooded boat. Bystanders scrambled from the banks to help pull Martin’s body out of the water, and then up to the road where a doctor and two nurses, who happened to be on Kelly’s bus, could administer proper CPR.
Kelly estimates between seven and nine minutes had elapsed between the point she went underwater and before she was receiving CPR, which was done so forcefully it was breaking cartilage in her ribs and maybe even the bones themselves. She still didn’t have a detectable pulse.
Then, they found one, Kelly said. And within minutes she was coughing and gurgling the water trapped in her lungs. The color returned to Martin’s face.
“Over the five-minute period, you saw her go from basically not being alive to verbal,” Kelly said.
Later medical responders from Swain County came and took her to the hospital, and Kelly returned to driving the bus, worried about what other problems the tree would cause. Witnesses say Martin was talking by the time she left with medics.
A friend of Martin’s, Rick Thompson, said he was driving up the river taking photos at different locations, when he saw the emergency scene on the side of the road. Thompson didn’t know it was his friend in peril until he saw the purple kayak.
“That’s a scene I don’t like to see on the river,” Thompson said.
He visited Martin the next day at Mission Hospital in Asheville and she was healthy and doing well. He said she has since been released and she is already posting on the Facebook page for her local kayaking club, letting everyone know she is fine.
Swain County 911 Dispatch personnel said two medical incidents occurred on the river that day. Another man was banged up by some river rocks but was not transported to the hospital.