One fall, that’s all.
That’s all it takes on the river rocks to knock you out, drop you in the current and send you off to oblivion, if you’re not wearing a life vest.
That’s why Columbus passed a law requiring that anyone out on the whitewater course wear one, and why it has a law against climbing out onto the rocks where you can be stranded by rising water.
No one has to buy a ticket on the zipline across the Chattahoochee to see that people regularly ignore those laws.
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And with the long, warm days of spring here, more now are drawn to the river’s edge.
That worries the emergency workers who have to rescue them if they fall in.
The river belongs to Columbus, so these are not Phenix City’s laws to enforce. Enforcement falls to Columbus police and to Department of Fire & Emergency Medical Services investigators with law enforcement power.
The latter are supposed to be investigating fires and charging arsonists, so they don’t have a lot of time to patrol the riverbank writing tickets for climbing out onto the rocks without a life vest.
Also it’s pretty easy to see them coming, along the riverfront, so a lot of suspects just run away. Others have no identification on them, and writing a ticket to someone who can just make up a name and address is an iffy proposition.
“It’s a city ordinance, so it’s definitely enforceable,” said Columbus Fire Marshal Ricky Shores. Any law enforcement officer can do it, but it’s the fire department that’s “putting our troops in harm’s way” when those breaking the law need rescue, he said.
It’s safer for everyone if rescuers don’t have to deploy, so Shores reminds those enjoying a nice, warm day on the riverbank that it’s really in their own interest not to drown.
And their children’s, too.
Locals take risks, but a lot of them at least know the danger, Shores said. Visitors from out of town sometimes go out at a low water with kids, and they don’t know the risks of slippery rocks, powerful currents and rapidly rising water.
Though the river usually rises around 5 p.m. as upstream dams start releasing water, that can happen anytime, Shores said, so no time is safe.
Parents need to remember that a child out there can be swept away in an instant.
So can an adult, but at least adults ought to know the river’s not a playground, Shores said. Often the issue with grownups is overconfidence: They think that they’re good swimmers, and that the distance across a whitewater channel isn’t far.
Both may be true, but neither accounts for the force with which a river funneled into a chute at high volume can grab a human body and hold it underwater, pinning it against rocks or endlessly spinning it in a hydraulic like a rag in a washing machine.
“This is not a stream up in the mountains,” Shores said. Fall as you try to wade across it while you fly-fish, and it will sweep you away: “You just can’t overcome the power of nature.”
The fire department has trained for these conditions, and stocked up on the necessary gear, Shores said: It has jet-skis, motorized rafts, powerboats, and all the lines and suits needed for swift-water rescue.
It long has had to deal with still water, which also has hidden dangers, but “swift water’s a whole ’nother animal,” he said.
Because rescuers here have the training, gear and experience, and a well-engineered whitewater course right downtown, the Columbus teams now train others, Shores said.
But they can’t fix a hopeless situation: If river roamers go into a rapid wearing no safety gear, a fire-rescue team likely won’t get there in time to rescue them, and then its divers will risk their lives searching for the body.
Once a body gets caught in the current, the only thing that can save it, usually, is a life vest.
“We’ve not pulled a body out yet with a vest on,” Shores said.