Yough Coroner's Inquest Report
On November 28th I attended the coronerís inquest into the three drownings that occurred on the Lower Youghiogheny at Dimple Rapid this past summer. Dr. Philip Reilly, the Fayette County Coroner, has examined other Yough river deaths with an eye towards improving safety on the river. This past summer he stated that he thought it would be advisable to destroy Dimple Rock.
Most of the day was devoted to gathering testimony from people who were there. This included Ohiopyle State Park rangers (including Park Manager Doug Hoehn), relatives and friends of the victim,, the victimís trip companions, river guides, and other paddlers who were in the vicinity when the accident occurred. The inquest was also attended by several outfitters, a lawyer from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and the Pa. Fish Commissionís Waterways Patrolman. I was asked by the Coroner to come to testify as an outside expert based on recommendations from Doug Hoehn and NOC personnel.
I got on the stand late in the day, as Dr. Reilly and the jury were examining possible ways to improve safety on the river. I answered questions on the following subjects:
1. PFDís: Dr. Reilly and some jurors were concerned that, because victims were pulled under water, that the life vests used by outfitters may have problems. They were also concerned about the PFDís coming off in some accidents. I explained that strong currents in the river will pull people and even boats under water. We wear life vests because even an expert swimmer can become disoriented by this. Furthermore, when a person is trapped under water, and they lose air, even a tight fitting PFD can be pulled off by the current. The Type V PFDís used by the outfitters have considerable excess buoyancy and the components are thoroughly tested. Current outfitter policies that remove PFDís when they show signs of wear are, in my opinion, sufficient.
2. River Modification: I explained that opinion in the paddling community on the advisability of filling in the undercut area of Dimple Rock was sharply divided. Some people want the river undisturbed, other think that fixing known danger spots is a good idea. But aside from philosophical concerns, there is a real risk that modification could cause unforeseen problems. I gave examples of past efforts and explained the problems encountered. I told them that any effort needs to be carefully planned by experts in construction to protect the site and insure that we achieve the desired result. No one wants to be lying awake nights wondering if their well-intentioned efforts caused a fatality! I noted that even if a solution is found, water levels will not allow anything to be done until the fall of 2001.
3. Lifeguards: Dr. Reilly and some jurors were wondering about the advisability of posting lifeguards in rapids. I explained that it would take dozens of guards to get reasonable coverage, and in the case of Dimple Rock, even a lifeguard stationed on the rock itself would be helpless to assist someone trapped underneath it. I told them I felt that our resources would
4. Education: I explained that I felt that Doug Hoehnís Safety Focus Group felt that this was the best course. At this point Doug Hoehn presented the safety program, developed by consensus of his Safety Focus Group. This included:
∑ Using stronger wording of the risks of river running in the park safety video.
∑ Building better place for prospective river runners to watch the video than the current site, where there are many distractions.
∑ Creating signs warning of danger at dimple at the put in and at the top of the rapid. These would identify the rapid, describe the danger, and recommending scouting and portaging when in doubt.
∑ Creating handouts on the dangers of Dimple, aimed at the rental customer.
∑ Improving guide safety training, including whether specialized gear can be pre-positioned at known hazardous sites.
∑ Creating a portage trail at the top of Dimple rapid. This land is currently owned by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, and there are endangered species on the site proposed trail.
Shortly thereafter the Coronerís jury deliberated, and returned with the following recommendations:
1. That warning signs be placed at Dimple Rapid and elsewhere that specifically indicated that people had been killed there.
2. Improving education in the manner suggested by the Yough Safety Focus Group.
3. That the state begin a study as to the feasibility of filling in the undercut area on the upstream side of Dimple Rock.
4. They commended Park Manager Doug Hoehn and his safety focus group for their efforts in planning improved safety measures for the 2001 season. Clearly his proactive actions were of considerable help here.
I had a brief conversation with the lawyer from DCNR after the proceedings. She indicated that the State of Pennsylvania was wary of modifying the river because of liability concerns. People cannot sue the state for what happens on a natural river, but a rapid, once modified, could expose the state to lawsuits. She assured me that this could not happen without public hearings being held.
I think Dimple Rock will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future. But because of the extent of the recently discovered undercut, river runners need to be wary.