Many aspects of the Chattahoochee River here in Columbus make it dangerous, but one in particular stands out:
It’s deceptive, said Columbus Fire Marshal Ricky Shores, whose Columbus Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services conducts search and rescue missions there: It goes from a trickle to a torrent in no time.
“One minute it’s very placid, and next thing you know, it’s the Congo River,” he said Thursday.
When the river drops, the sandbars surface and the western shelf extends far from Phenix City’s high-water mark, people start acting like they’re at the beach. They walk out into the middle, and then they wade farther, sometimes with children and pets.
They have no life vests, no floats, no lines to throw to anyone in distress.
Shores recalls jogging along the bank and seeing parents who have let a child with no safety gear go out far from high ground.
Once it was a little girl, he said, and he stopped to talk to her guardians.
“You see your daughter out there?” he said. “If she goes in that water, she’s never coming out.”
A stark reminder of the danger was an out-of-town snorkeler’s drowning last week off the Chattahoochee RiverWalk, near Bay Avenue and 11th Street. The 25-year-old was with a group from Warner Robbins, Ga., when he ventured beyond the calmer water of an eddy and got caught in the current.
That was around 2:20 p.m. June 7. Searchers were unable to locate the body. A kayaker happened upon it a mile downstream, near Bulldog Bait & Tackle off Victory Drive, around 8 p.m. the next day.
The Chattahoochee claims its share of local victims, too, but Shores and other authorities here have expressed a particular concern for out-of-town visitors unfamiliar with the risks. Often people who grew up here were warned of the danger from an early age, and had those lessons reinforced every time the river claimed another life.
That doesn’t mean whitewater rafting with the outfitter Whitewater Express poses a lethal threat. Such excursions have their risks – that’s why people sign waivers before they go – but customers are required to wear helmets and life vests, and their guides are trained and equipped to retrieve them if they go in.
Those lost to the river almost always are ill-equipped and unprepared: no life vests, no safety lines, no one to come to their aid.
City law now requires anyone on the whitewater course to wear a life vest or personal flotation device, commonly called a “PFD.” Columbus Council passed the law in 2012.
“It shall be unlawful for any person to swim, canoe, kayak, raft, jet-ski, or use any other vessel on the Chattahoochee River between the North Highlands Dam and the southern property line of the Columbus Iron Works Convention and Trade Center without wearing a personal flotation device,” the ordinance states.
On Friday night, authorities rescued and then arrested an allegedly intoxicated man after he got stranded on the rocks near the 13th Street Bridge.
The 32-year-old was charged with drunk and disorderly conduct and wearing no life vest on the whitewater course, police said.
Officers and rescue crews were called to the river around 8:15 p.m. to check on two men needing help. The one they arrested disobeyed their commands and went into the river, so they had to pull him out, they said.
The life-vest law has exceptions for sanctioned swimming events, which are closely monitored with rescuers available for emergencies.
Those are the only exceptions. The law makes no allowance for snorkeling, for children whose parents are watching them splash in the shallows too far from shore, or for adults wading out from the riverbank to fish.
Like whitewater outfitters, organized groups that choose to go into the river should be prepared to conduct a rescue, bringing with them rope or other gear designed to be thrown to a swimmer in distress, so that no one else goes in and drowns trying to swim out to help.
Not everyone the river has claimed intentionally ventured into it, Shores noted, as in the case of a 14-year-old boy who in 2015 was climbing on the rocks south of the 13th Street Bridge when he slipped, falling into a powerful rapid.
A life vest is no guarantee of survival, though rescuers here say they’ve never recovered a body wearing one. Deputy Fire Chief Robert Futrell, who trains dive teams, was among rescue workers who swam the whitewater course before it opened in 2013.
“And even with life jackets on, in some areas of the water, were being pulled under for a considerable amount of time,” he said in 2012. “It would be very, very difficult to be in some of those areas without a life jacket and have any chance of survival.”
In January 2016, authorities feared they would have to cite an exception to their maxim that no bodies in life vests are retrieved from the river here: A kayaker capsized off the rock island downtown and disappeared.
The situation was made more dangerous by the cold: The outside air temperature was in the mid-40s. Hypothermia was a risk, too.
Yet the kayaker had been outfitted well, in a wet suit, a dry “splash” suit, and a life jacket.
Finally, after 45 minutes, Columbus police found the man downriver near Rotary Park. He made it to shore and went to the hospital for a check-up. Being prepared paid off.
Rescuers warn that just any personal flotation device will not suffice, on the river here. If the fabric has frayed or rotted, the padding inside could pop out and float away. If it long has been in a boat’s flooded locker, it may be so saturated it doesn’t float at all. If it’s too big to fit tightly, it either will come off or fail to hold the wearer’s head above water.
A functional, properly fitted life vest, strapped tightly, is what it takes to survive.
Swimmers or snorkelers who want to dive under might choose an inflatable vest – one that the user has to blow into to inflate.
“Oral inflation tube allows quick inflation,” reads an online ad for one available at Wal-Mart. “Oral inflation tube allows for quick inflation and deflation within one minute.”
Don’t count on that to save your life if you panic, Shores said. The terror of running out of breath affects even veterans of high-risk situations, including firefighters, scuba divers and athletes.
If you’re drowning in a panic, you’re probably not going to remember to blow into the inflatable vest, he said.
“You’re clawing for the surface and screaming bloody murder,” he said. “You ain’t thinking about nothing but the next breath.”