Dimple Rock nightmare: Ohiopyle officials urged to find fix for dangerous area

| Thursday, Aug. 28, 2003

Fayette County Coroner Dr. Phillip Reilly has put out a call for help in finding a way to make a deadly section of the Youghiogheny River in Ohiopyle State Park safer for whitewater rafters.

Reilly wants professional engineers to volunteer their services in devising a fix for Dimple Rock, the site of nine of the Lower Youghiogheny's 18 drownings since 1976.

"We're looking for fresh brainpower," Reilly said. "It isn't a simple problem. It doesn't have a simple fix."

Reilly's comments came at the close of a coroner's inquest into the July death of a Maryland man who drowned when his raft overturned after striking the rock.

In a videotape of the spill shown to jurors, Andrew Dearden, 46, of Sykesville, Md., is seen clinging to the raft moments after it overturned.

Although Dearden did not appear to be in distress, he was discovered unresponsive a short distance down the river, at a spot known as Swimmer's Rapids, by a rescue kayaker. A nurse and others tried unsuccessfully to revive him.

The coroner's jury ruled the death an unavoidable accident, but the six-member panel also recommended that companies that give guided tours adopt several changes.

The jury wants river guides to instruct customers who fall into the water to give a "thumbs up" or other hand signal to show they are OK if they are not immediately helped back into their rafts.

They also want guides, who communicate mostly by hand signals while on the river, to carry two-way radios.

The jury also recommended that guides be posted at the entrance to rapids so that rafts can be let into the swift-moving waters one at a time.

The video of Dearden's accident while on a guided trip with Laurel Highlands River Tours showed several rafts negotiating the river at Dimple Rock in rapid succession. Reilly noted at least two of the rafts overturned, dumping as many as eight rafters into the water.

Terry Nicholson, of Laurel Highlands River Tours, testified customers are told not to run their rafts into the rapids until signaled to do so by a guide. He acknowledged some fail to heed the hand signals.

"I can give hand signals all day, but it's very hard to control them because you are not in the raft," Nicholson said. "It's like tossing a coin. They either listen, or they don't."

Dearden's wife, Christy, suggested insufficient communication between the guides and rafters resulted in the rafts following each other too quickly into the rapids.

"They shouldn't have gotten jammed up," Christy Dearden said. "It's a simple solution. Walkie-talkies are cheaper than having to go through a funeral, which I had to do."

Dimple Rock did not have a direct impact on Dearden's death, as it has in other drownings where swimmers became trapped under it, Reilly said. The size of a tank, Dimple Rock is undercut below the river's surface by a cavernous opening Ohiopyle park Manager Doug Hoehn said is "almost the size of the inside of a minivan."

Hoehn has been looking for a fix for the opening since confirming its existence in 2000, the year three rafters died near the rock.

One option is to fill in the cavern, Hoehn said. The park won't go ahead with the plan for fear altering the hydraulics at the site could worsen the danger.

Reilly called on professional engineers, or others with similar skills, to donate their services to finding a temporary way to fill in the void under Dimple Rock. He wants a temporary fix tried before anything permanent is done so that any so-called cure can be reversed, if it proves unsuccessful.

"We have to come up with something we can back away from, if it's not the bright idea we thought it was," Reilly said. "It needs to be able to be reversed, whatever's done, if it creates a problem equal to, or worse, than it was."

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