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Fayette jury lists measures to limit Dimple Rock peril

Stalking a sentinel of death

Wednesday, November 29, 2000

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Lori Lombard believed she was about to die.

She had lost; Dimple Rock had won.

Trapped against the notorious tank-sized rock in the Youghiogheny River on Sept. 2, after capsizing during a white-water rafting trip, Lombard struggled as best she could. Stuck with her head under the surface, the pressure of the powerful current intensifying against her chest, she started to gulp down water.

"I ran out of air, so I just gave up," the 32-year-old speech pathologist from Wilkinsburg said yesterday during a Fayette County coroner's inquest into three drowning deaths at the rock this year.

With no doubts about her pending death, Lombard relaxed her body. Then, miraculously, the scourge of the Youghiogheny let her go, and she surfaced.

Lombard was lucky. Two weeks later, 16-year-old Andrea Yealy of Adams County wasn't. After flipping into the river during an outing with friends on Sept. 16, Yealy became stuck beneath the waters and drowned at Dimple Rock.

In an effort to improve safety and address what should be done to render Dimple Rock harmless, Fayette County Coroner Dr. Phillip E. Reilly held a daylong inquest and asked a six-member jury to recommend changes to the state's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which oversees Ohiopyle State Park.

The jury recommended changing an informational video shown at the park so that it emphasizes the potential for capsizing. The video is not mandatory for rafters.

Jurors suggested that danger signs be posted before major rapids along the river. They advised a strong warning be placed at Dimple Rock that states the number of lives the site has claimed. And they told Reilly the state should research whether a large cavity that exists beneath Dimple Rock can be filled, an idea that is currently being considered by park officials.

The jury's recommendations are not binding. They were passed along to Doug Hoehn, operations manager for Ohiopyle, who was present during the hearing. There would have to be public hearings before any major changes could be made to the river, such as filling the hole under the rock.

Dimple Rock, a sandstone formation, has a propensity to flip kayaks, rafts and canoes if it is not approached correctly. Although most rapids are run straight on, Dimple Rock requires paddlers to run it at an angle to the right.

The river, which is more than 200 feet wide in most places, is squeezed to the left at the rock by an "apron," a collection of earth and rocks dumped into the river over the centuries. The main current veers to the left and then heads straight for Dimple Rock near the left shore.

Since 1976, there have been 17 drownings on the 7.5-mile Lower Yough, which runs from the put-in point at Ohiopyle to the take-out spot at Bruner Run. Eight of those victims drowned at Dimple Rock Rapid.

Andrea's parents, Michele and David Yealy of Littles Town, near Gettysburg, were critical of the park's informational video after viewing it at the hearing.

"You wonder how many teen-agers pay attention to that video. To me, it looked like tons of fun," Michele Yealy said. "That video doesn't express danger."

During testimony, it quickly became apparent that inexperienced people tackling the river on their own without guidance or warnings run a risk of serious injury or death at Dimple Rock.

Even being on a guided tour, and wearing safety equipment is not ironclad protection. One of the people who died on the river this year was part of a tour.

Reilly reviewed the circumstances of each of the three deaths at Dimple Rock this year, calling as witnesses boaters, river guides and Ohiopyle officials.

In each case, the rafters wore helmets and life jackets and didn't appear to suffer any major injuries other than drowning before they died.

The year's first death was June 27 when a rented, inflatable kayak overturned at Dimple Rock, dumping Willie Pate, 46, of Cleveland, and his companion, Shelly Gordon, 37, also of Cleveland, into the water.

Gordon testified that she was an experienced rafter, having run the river in the past.

It was Pate's first time, but he was a former Marine and was athletic, his daughter, LaShawn Pate, 26, of Cleveland, testified. Reilly made a point to note that even a robust person such as Pate could be imperiled by the river.

The couple tagged along with another self-guided tour that day. Because they were on their own, they didn't have the benefit of any special warnings about the dangers posed by Dimple Rock or guidance in how to navigate the treacherous stretch of river.

Typically, tour guides explain the hazards of running the river, review a game plan before running each major rapid and post a guide atop Dimple Rock to aid in rescuing capsized rafters.

Second to die on the Youghiogheny River was another Ohio man who was part of a guided rafting trip. Stewart Hill, 63, of Andover, died Sept. 8, after tumbling into the water with his wife, Sandra, when their raft flipped.

Stewart Hill was not sucked beneath the water for any length of time and appeared conscious while floating through the rapids below Dimple Rock. Although he was rescued, within 2 1/2 to three minutes, river guides testified, he couldn't be resuscitated despite the efforts of a nurse on the scene.

Yealy was in a rented, inflatable kayak with a friend her age when she died. An only child, she was a swimmer and had previous white-water experience.

"They have to start somewhere," her mother told reporters after the jury gave its recommendations. "I would like to see the rock filled in."

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