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White River Kayak Accident Survivor Warns Against Low-Head Dams

Writer: Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photographer: Jamie Sangar

It was a bright, beautiful day last July 9 when Warren Rosenthal and his buddy, Lawrance Morrissey, decided to kayak a 15-mile stretch of the White River. Being well-versed in the dangers of low-head dams, the men planned to portage around it. It had recently rained up north, however, which caused the water to move more swiftly and carry them faster than anticipated. Within seconds, the pair found themselves going over the dam, and Rosenthal, a 3-year kayaking veteran, knew they were in trouble.

“They aren’t called drowning machines for no reason,” says Ken Smith, Assistant Director for the Division of Water with the Indiana DNR. “They’re notorious for hundreds of deaths nationwide.”

Robert Barr, IUPUI Research Scientist with the Center for Earth & Environmental Science, says that what makes these low-head dams so deadly is the hydraulic jump that occurs as the water breaks over the surface of the dam.

“It drops down and develops a gyre,” Barr says. “[It creates] a spinning like a washing machine at the bottom of that, like a circulating current.”

Rosenthal knew that survival wasn’t dependent upon his swimming skills.

“You can be Michael Phelps and you’re not swimming out of that,” Rosenthal says. “The water always wins.”

Tossed from their kayaks, the men were repeatedly churned around in the turbulent water.

“We were barely able to breathe so it was impossible to talk,” says Rosenthal, who, in a critical moment, recalled an article he’d read about finding an escape route when trapped in this specific situation. If he could curl up, dive to the bottom of the river, and swim downstream, he could emerge beyond the boil and essentially escape the riptide that kept sucking him back under. He stripped off his life jacket and took a breath.

“Call it divine intervention, but I felt like I was pushed down into the water about 20 feet,” Rosenthal says. “I could see the water—all bubbly like it was carbonated, and the sun was shining through it, which oriented me. My first thought was, ‘I don’t know if I can hold my breath this long.’”

He’d already been furiously treading water, gasping for air, and fighting for his life for 15 minutes, leaving him utterly exhausted. He floated to the top and realized he was out of the boil and was going down river with the current. He grabbed hold of a log jam and held on until rescuers snatched him out of the river. Tragically, Morrissey perished in the accident, leaving behind a wife and three children.

Rosenthal, who has a wife, Stephanie, daughter, Sydney (17), and son, Rock (14), was in the hospital for six days. Though he didn’t sustain a single scratch, he describes the aftermath as feeling like he’d been thrashed by a team of 15 men. What he took away from the accident was a determination to spread the word about the danger of low-head dams.

Now, he meets monthly with a group called the Silver Jackets, which consists of professors, DNR employees, members of homeland security, and others who are passionate about knocking down or modifying these dams so that they no longer present a danger. Unfortunately, since it costs $150,000 to remove a low-head dam and thousands are scattered across the country (with 150 in the state of Indiana), at the very least, the Silver Jackets would like to see warning signs posted along river banks to educate and warn the public.

“It isn’t impossible to live if you get caught in the hydraulic of a low-head dam, but it’s highly unlikely,” says Lt. Terry Hyndman, Executive Officer with the Indiana DNR, Law Enforcement Division.

“I’m a rarity to have survived,” says Rosenthal, franchise owner of FibreNew, a company that provides leather, plastic and vinyl furniture restoration. He just contributed to a video segment for WFYI that’s geared toward 18- to 24-year-olds — the age group that’s most susceptible to perishing from low-head dam accidents. These days more people recreate on the river without getting the proper training. As a result, many don’t realize that going over a low-head dam is most likely a death sentence.

“Think about it. Would any of us kayak over a dam if we knew about the killer that was waiting for us on the other side?” Hyndman says. “I don’t think so.”

1 Comment

joan roberts
February 4, 2018 at 2:19 am

the kayak article was great! I have gone out with IYAK, and the group is very safety aware, and teaches the basics,, and stresses safety. I miss them all but hope to get back to it again this year.
SO MANY dangers with water, and I hope there is more education , awareness, and SIGNAGE posted along river banks as reminders. Sure, a fun day in the sun can be casual and relaxing and in a few seconds become a tragic mishap a second later. PREPARE – AWARE – and thanks go to the rescuers that also put their lives on the line!

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