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12 stranded in Shenandoah rescued by copter

June 22, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS and DAVE McMILLION

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. -- A dozen people, most of them children, were rescued by state police helicopters Sunday night after they became stranded in a rocky section of the Shenandoah River near Harpers Ferry during a river rafting and tubing trip, Maryland State Police said Monday in a news release.

The stranded victims included 10 children and two adults, ranging in age from 4 to 41 years old, state police said.

There were no injuries, but after being stranded in the water after dark in windy conditions, many of the rafters were in the early stages of hypothermia, said Ed Smith, chief of Independent Fire Co. in Jefferson County, W.Va.

Dry clothes and blankets took care of those issues, Smith said.

The group, from outside of Jefferson County, was attempting the rafting and tubing trip independently, Smith said. Neither police nor fire officials had the rafters' names.

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Shortly before 10 p.m. Sunday, Jefferson County Fire and Rescue received a call from someone who heard people screaming for help in the Shenandoah River near Bull Falls, not far from Harpers Ferry, state police said.

Smith said the Bull Falls area is normally a Class III, or intermediate, rapids area, but high water had created class IV, or advanced, rapids.

Responders from Friendship Fire Co. and Independent Fire Co.'s Swift Water Rescue Team found the fast-moving water and the number of rocks in the river made rescue by boat or rope line impossible, Smith said.

"It was a very risky situation," Smith said. "No matter how we went in to do this rescue, it was dangerous."

The fire departments called for help from the Maryland State Police Aviation Command, state police said.

Police helicopter Trooper 3 from Frederick, Md., was dispatched to the scene with pilot Russ Zullick and flight paramedic Sgt. Donald Lehman on board, police said. When the crew arrived, they called for Trooper 5 from Cumberland, Md., to assist with hoist operations.

"The scene was dark and dangerous," the state police release said. "A mountain was on one side of the river bank and trees were along the river on the other side. There were also trees growing from rock islands in the middle of the river."

Smith said the landscape was a challenge for the helicopter crews.

"They do a great job, but it's extremely risky for them, because at nighttime they can't see the possibility of their basket getting hung up in a tree," he said.

Using their spotlight to illuminate the area below, the crew of Trooper 3 began its rescues, with victims clinging to a rock that was only 1 foot above the river rapids, police said.

"The children were being splashed by the water and appeared to be in imminent danger of hypothermia and exposure," the release said. "Hovering over the scene, pilot Zullick and Sgt. Lehman dropped the rescue basket to the rocks four times and hoisted five people into the helicopter."

Lehman, who has been a flight paramedic for 14 years, said when Trooper 3 arrived, the crew could see a group of five stranded on a rock the size of an office desk.

"The water was splashing over them," he said. "So, we knew they were in imminent danger."

Nearby, there was another group of three people stranded on what Lehman described as a "rocky island," and another group farther upstream.

Zullick brought the helicopter to a low hover, about 20 feet above the river, Lehman said. That is where Lehman lowered the rescue basket to the stranded people below, most of whom were children.

Lehman and the crew rescued all five from the rock and took them to a landing site nearby.

"They were obviously very cold and scared but uninjured otherwise," he said.

By the time Trooper 3 had rescued the group of five from the rock, Trooper 5 had arrived on the scene and rescued the last two groups.

"We've never actually rescued that many different people from that many spots before," Lehman said.

Those who were rescued were flown to an elementary school in Harpers Ferry, where they were turned over to fire and EMS personnel, police said.

Trooper 5's crew was pilot Scott Russell, training pilot Chris Pysz and flight paramedic Trooper 1st Class Larry Levasseur, police said. Also on board were two members of the Cumberland Fire Department HEAT Team who are trained in aerial rescue operations.

While Trooper 3 was off-loading patients, the crew of Trooper 5 took over rescue operations, state police said.

Smith said three of the rafters, including the 4-year-old boy, were stranded on a small island, which had too much tree cover to allow helicopter access.

The fire department's water rescue team helped those three people reach an area away from the trees, but because of their risk for hypothermia, they were flown out by helicopter, Smith said.

The Blue Ridge Mountain Fire Co. and others helped with the rescue, Smith said.

It was close to midnight by the time the operation was finished, he said.

Smith said he recommended rafters avoid the Bull Falls area of the Shenandoah River unless they have the help of a professional river rafting organization.

Staff writer Erin Cunningham contributed to this story.

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