Multiple rafter deaths reported at start of Gauley season

Published: Sep. 12, 2023 at 12:28 PM EDT
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FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. (WVVA) -Two rafters have died over the last week while participating in and getting ready for Gauley season.

The rafting season started on September 8th with scheduled dam releases at Summersville Lake.

According to a spokesperson for the National Park Service (NPS), the first accident occurred on Thursday, September 7 on a training day for raft guides when a private rafting party flipped near the Class V Iron Ring Rapid, throwing all three boaters into the river. Two of the party were able to swim ashore, however one of the boaters, 62-year-old Norman LaHugh Cassell of Richmond, Virginia, appeared to be unconscious in the water. Caswell was pulled from the water by off-duty commercial rafting guides, who began CPR, with Rangers and EMS arriving on scene to assist. He was pronounced dead shortly after the ambulance arrived on scene with the exact cause of death unknown pending investigation by the WV Office of the Medical Examiner.

The spokesperson said the second accident occurred on Saturday, September 9, with NPS Rangers receiving a report around 12:30 pm that a commercial rafting customer had been swept under a rock. Upon arriving on scene it was confirmed that the individual had fallen out of the raft and was believed to be entrapped at a known undercut rock called Shipwreck Rock. The raft had not flipped and no other members of the trip had fallen from the boat.

An emergency flow reduction of the Gauley River coming from Summersville Dam was immediately requested and rescuers remained on site throughout the afternoon as river levels dropped. Extreme high-water inflow from tributary streams, however, made water levels on the Gauley too high to attempt a recovery.

The park is currently in a holding pattern, with conditions being monitored to determine when tributary streams have dropped enough to enable a safe recovery attempt.

The victim is 63-year-old Lee Lenora Doyle, from Monterey, Virginia.

Agencies involved in rescue and recovery efforts include Ansted, Oak Hill, and Fayetteville Volunteer Fire Departments, Jan Care Ambulance, WV Division of Natural Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Fayette County Rope Rescue Team, and Beaver Volunteer Fire Dive Team.