LAKE RED ROCK — Several key lessons emerged in the wake of a tragedy Saturday just below the Red Rock Dam. One kayaker died, another was rescued, and first responders walked away more aware of the powers of nature and teamwork.
Timothy Chicoine, 61, of St. Marys, was pronounced dead Saturday at Pella Regional Health Center. Kevin Beatty, 56, of Tracy, was treated there for hypothermia and released. The men, along with two other kayakers, were paddling southeast of the dam on a sunny January day when temperatures rose into the 50s.
Chicoine and Beatty got too close to the stilling basin, where water pours from Lake Red Rock through the dam gates. It’s extremely turbulent, Tracy Spry, a park ranger with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said Tuesday.
“The water has an immense amount of force, and if you get beyond that restricted area, there are chances you can get drawn in,” Spry said. “Sometimes people don’t realize that, and even if they do, they think it’s not gonna happen to them. It’s just important to not take risks.”
Law enforcement and fire and rescue personnel were dispatched just after 11 a.m. to the South Taillwater area for a report of two capsized kayaks. Marion County Sheriff Jason Sandholdt said he was among the first to respond to the call, but that Chicoine already had succumbed to the current by then. Fishermen recovered his body. Beatty was clinging to the kayaks.
“People don’t realize how quickly that current can pull you back upstream,” Sandholdt said. “They were definitely somewhere they shouldn’t have been.”
The pair was tugged into a whirlpool effect, Sandholdt said. Chicoine, whose obituary described him as an experienced kayaker, couldn’t overcome the relentless current.
“People get tired,” Sandholdt said “The current doesn’t.”
Beatty was saved by the collaboration of many people, said Knoxville Fire Chief Cal Wyman. He was among many who threw rescue lines from the shore. A turning point came when the Corps closed the dam gates, making things easier on Beatty and his rescuers.
“The dam creates its own turbulence. It’s pretty treacherous,” Wyman said. “That slowed the water down to give us an opportunity to try to make the rescue.”
The ropes were essential, Sandholdt said.
“If you wouldn’t have had the deputies or the firefighters or the construction workers and the fishermen throwing him ropes, he probably wouldn’t have made it,” he said.
Still, Wyman said, Beatty went underwater several times.
“He got to the point where he couldn’t hang on to the rope anymore because he was exhausted and the current was just too much for him,” he said. “If he went under one more time, we maybe wouldn’t get another chance.”
Beatty eventually was snagged with a rope that had a buoy tied to it, Wyman said. Meanwhile, rescue boats from the Knoxville and Pella fire departments hit the water. Sandholdt was on the Pella boat that pulled Beatty in and took him to the Howell Station boat ramp, where a Pella ambulance awaited.
“When I had him in my arms, he wasn’t making much sense and you could just tell he was physically exhausted,” Sandholdt said. “He was just wore out. He was just tired not only from the cold but from the struggle of trying to stay alive.”
Sandholdt cradled Beatty to warm him and joined others in keeping him alert.
“He fought really hard up in the current. We wanted him to keep on fighting when he was with us in the boat, and he did,” Sandholdt said. “I just wish it were two of them that we were trying to keep warm instead of one.”
People from Ames Construction, the Knoxville Rural Fire Department and the state Department of Natural Resources also helped, Wyman said. Having so many people working together was pivotal, he said.
“It was a huge team effort,” Wyman said. “I think that’s why we had the outcome that we did, that we didn’t have two fatalities.”
Boating safety guidance
Park ranger Tracy Spry offers tips to keep boaters safe:
- Remember that restrictive signs pertain to all boats
- Wear life jackets in whitewater or calm water.
- Boat with other people
- File a float plan with your path and timetable.
- Know what the weather is going to do.
- Know your limits and don’t take risks
- Check lake levels and dam outflows at rivergages.com or call 641-828-7522.