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Inquest set in rafter's death

| Tuesday, July 8, 2003

The safety of a treacherous, but popular, stretch of the Youghiogheny River that claimed another whitewater rafter last weekend in Fayette County will be the focus of a coroner's inquest into the drowning.

Andrew Dearden, 46, a store manager from Sykesville, Md., died Saturday while rafting in Ohiopyle State Park with a church youth group from Reistertown, Md. Since 1976, 19 people have drowned in the 7 1/2-mile section of the river that is popular with rafters and kayakers.

Dearden was among four members from Covenant of Grace Presbyterian Church who fell into the river after their raft struck a tank-sized rock commonly called Dimple Rock at about 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

After capsizing, the four -- who all were wearing life jackets and helmets -- grabbed a rope running alongside the raft. But Dearden let go of the rope and continued floating downstream, authorities said.

Deputy coroner Roger Victor said Dearden was pulled ashore about two-tenths of a mile downstream at Swimmer's Rapids.

"There happened to be a nurse rafting at that time who attempted to resuscitate him, but it was not successful," Victor said.

Coroner Robert Furin pronounced Dearden dead at the scene at 4:50 p.m. An autopsy formally determined that Dearden had drowned, Victor said.

County Coroner Dr. Phillip Reilly has opted to hold an inquest into the drowning. A date and time will be announced, Victor said.

"It's another drowning in an area that is very popular with the public, so we feel (an inquest) is warranted," he said.

The state park draws about 2 million visitors annually, and about 100,000 people raft there yearly, according to park officials.

Of the 19 rafting deaths, nine of the people, including Dearden, have drowned near Dimple Rock.

After three drowning deaths at Dimple Rock in 2000, Reilly held an inquest that resulted in the implementation of several rafting safety measures, including installation of new warning signs, waterproof maps, more training for rescue staff, and creation of a 500-foot portage for rafters around the dangerous section of rapids.

Outfitters also are required to show a video to rafters telling them how to scout the river and stay away from dangerous areas before they get on the river.

Some Ohiopyle rafting outfitters contacted yesterday declined to comment on the accident or whether they think any additional safety measures are needed through the stretch.

Kayak enthusiast Jeff Prycl, of Greensburg, said no further action is needed on the river.

"This isn't Idlewild. This isn't Kennywood. This is a wild, scenic river," said Prycl, owner of Rocky Mountain Kayak in New Stanton and park chairman of the Three Rivers Paddling Club.

"They (rafting guides) can only give you warnings. I've been around long enough to see that people think it is Kennywood ... that it is a ride," Prycl said referring to area amusement parks.

"They can't do any more than they've already done. The only way you can make it safe is for nobody to run the river," Prycl said.

David Hough, manager of Mountain Streams and Trails Outfitters, which operates whitewater trips from Albright, W.Va., and Friendsville, Md., agreed with Prycl. He said Saturday's death was not a signal that more precautions are needed in the area, because the circumstance was much different from past drownings.

"A lot of those (previous deaths) were people who got trapped under the rock. This drowning could not have been avoided through safety measures. ... It just sounds like something that happened," Hough said.

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