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Kayak overturns in Yough, killing Cleveland man

Wednesday, June 28, 2000

By Lawrence Walsh, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A Cleveland man drowned when a rented inflatable kayak carrying him and a companion overturned in the Youghiogheny River in Ohiopyle State Park in Fayette County.

Willie Pate, 46, who was wearing a life jacket and a blue plastic helmet, died yesterday when the black kayak capsized as the swift-moving current pushed it up against Dimple Rock, one of the more challenging rapids on what is known as the Lower Section of the river. There have been other drownings at the site.

The current carried his companion, Shelly Gordon, 38, also of Cleveland, and the 9-foot-long kayak to the right of the rock.

But the current apparently held Pate against the rock -- and below the water level -- for an unknown amount of time before his body floated downstream. No one witnessed the accident.

One of the four commercial rafting companies based in nearby Ohiopyle came upon the scene soon after the accident. Its guides radioed for help and performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Pate, but they weren't able to revive him.

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which oversees the operation of the 19,052-acre park, said the water level was 1-foot 8-inches at its gauge in Ohiopyle -- a normal summer level. The water temperature was 65 degrees.

Commercial rafting companies post a guide on Dimple Rock because of the current's propensity to capsize rafts and kayaks in front of it. The Pottsville sandstone rock is about the size of a tank.

Although commercial rafting guides routinely help anyone who falls in the water at Dimple Rock, no one apparently was around when Pate and Gordon started to paddle toward it.

Kayakers and rafters familiar with the rapid paddle their craft at a one o'clock/seven o'clock angle to avoid hitting Dimple Rock. It couldn't be determined whether Pate and Gordon had run the rapid before or had paddled an inflatable kayak before. The latter can be prone to tipping, especially in fast-moving water.

Depending on its size, an inflatable kayak can be paddled by one or two people, one sitting behind the other. Kayakers propel their craft with paddles about 8 feet long that have a blade on each end. Pate and Gordon rented the kayak from Whitewater Rentals, a subsidiary of Whitewater Adventurers, a commercial rafting company in Ohiopyle.

Its manager, Bob Marietta, extended his sympathy to the Pate family. He said the company is working with state park officials to learn more about the accident.

Since 1970, more than 3 million people have paddled rafts and kayaks from Ohiopyle to Bruner Run, a distance of 7.5 miles. Eleven of the 15 people who drowned on that section used their own equipment or rented it. The other four fatalities were customers of commercial rafting companies.

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