A Whitewater Express guide came to the rescue of a 5-year-old boy who had fallen into the Chattahoochee River and two adults who went in after the child and also became trapped on a rock Sunday afternoon.
The rock, just upstream from the notorious “Cutbait” rapid, was slowly being consumed by the rising river, as Georgia Power had begun generating power a little earlier. None of the stranded people was wearing a personal flotation device.
Adam Sanders, a guide with Whitewater Express, was in the area as a safety precaution because the company was about to send some rafts through the whitewater course’s signature rapid. He noticed the unidentified child slip into the current and be swept downstream. The child’s mother and a male companion went in after the child and all three managed to make it to a rock about 15-20 feet from shore.
“I heard some cried of distress and I looked over and saw that the boy had been pulled out into the current right next to Cutbait,” Adams said. “Then his mother and another young man got into the current to help him back, and they were pulled into the current.”
Sanders said once he determined that the three were safely on the rock, and told a bystander to call 911 as he sprinted up the bank to get PFDs from his work van.
He returned with four PFDs, donned one of them and managed to swim to the rock and climb aboard with the castaways. Once he had everyone snugly in their life jackets, he looked up and saw the first responders crossing the 13th Street Bridge, so he said he figured the best course of action was to stay put and try to keep calm the child.
“He was pretty scared and crying,” Sanders said. “So I talked to him to get him calmed down.”
While this was going on, the first responders had called Georgia Power and had them shut down the flow from the North Highland Dam, halting the rise of the river and allowing the level and strength of the currents to drop.
Sanders figures they were out on the rock for over an hour before the level dropped enough for the rescuers to send one man over, towing a safety line. With responders holding each end of the rope, another traversed the channel and one by one assisted the stranded people back to shore.
“I was not surprised, but I was very impressed with the first responders,” Sanders said.
Sanders said the misadventure should serve as a reminder of just how easy it is for someone, especially a small child, to get in trouble in the river, and that children should wear a PFD if they’re playing by the river.
Whitewater Express President Dan Gilbert said he was proud to hear of his employee’s heroics.
“I like to tell people, the river’s a safer place when our people are on it,” Gilbert said.
Assistant Fire Chief Robert Futrell said he agrees with Gilbert that the river is safer with the trained guides on it. He also said he wants to remind people that it is against the law to enter the river without a PFD and his department means to crack down on violators.
“We are going to start cracking down on it,” Futrell said, adding that Columbus bicycle police on the Riverwalk also intend to be aggressive in ticketing violators. “It’s for the safety of the people. We only want people to be safe, and if we have to be the bad guys to do that, we’re willing to.”
While the tickets are misdemeanors, the fine, which is up to the judge, can be as high as $1,000, Futrell said.
Futrell said his water rescue squad responds to two or three such calls a week, and he hopes issuing more tickets will help reduce that number.
“The state line is the high water mark on the Alabama side,” Futrell said. “If we pull somebody off the rocks on the Alabama side, we will bring them across the river to Georgia, have the police write them a ticket and then bring them back to Alabama.”
So did the three stranded people get a ticket on Sunday?
“No,” Futrell said. “By the time we got there, everyone was wearing a PFD. There was no violation.”