WRAL Investigates

Taxpayers foot big bill for dangerous Haw River rescues

Posted August 5, 2016
Updated August 6, 2016

— Hitting waterways for a little paddling is a rite of summer for many in the Tar Heel State, but the Haw River has developed a notorious reputation and a scary nickname – Hell River.

It's because of the frequency with which emergency crews, many times in Chatham County, are called to rescue paddlers who get themselves into trouble on the river.

"We have a lot of amateurs that come spur of the moment," Mark Riggsbee, a deputy chief with the North Chatham Volunteer Fire Department, said. "We'd really like...do your homework before you get on the Haw."

While calls to the Haw River are frequent for Riggsbee and other volunteers, he said the calls are never business as usual.

"The Haw River changes constantly. It's quick up and down. A lot of debris comes down the Haw, which is constantly changing," Riggsbee said. "Every time we enter the Haw River when it's at these high levels, our guys are at extreme risk of being injured or even killed."

Patrick Pugh and his girlfriend, Gina Wright, were pulled out of the river in May after a nine-hour rescue effort that included poor weather and the use of a helicopter.

"They risked their lives just to make sure we got out," Pugh said.

Chatham County Emergency Management said the May rescue of Pugh and Wright cost about $20,000 in taxpayer money.

"It's a very expensive rescue to perform," Riggsbee said.

Since 2012, there have been 11 swift-water rescues on the Haw River. During a busy year in 2013, there were three rescues in a 24-hour period, including one involving two paddlers who got in trouble when their canoe flipped.

Taxpayers have footed the bill for all of them.

"It's many thousands of dollars, and there is no way to recoup that right now," Riggsbee said.

Chatham County leaders have floated the idea of charging boaters for rescues, similar to how people can be forced to foot the bill for resources used during responses to fake bomb threats.

So far, that idea hasn't gotten much support. Some states such as California and Oregon give agencies power to charge people for rescues, but they must prove gross negligence by boaters or hikers, which can be difficult.

Rescuers also fear that making people foot the bill for resources may have a negative effect. Instead of acting as a deterrent, some believe it may stop people from calling for help when they are in trouble.

"We've never gotten to a point where they've decided to pass a county ordinance to start charging," Riggsbee said. "Like I said, it's been talked about many times."

Riggsbee says most boaters rescued on the Haw River are inexperienced. He said he thinks people should think twice about into the river without proper training.

"Rescues on the Haw, to us, are a very extreme danger," he said. "They're one of the most dangerous things we do."


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  • Rick Steeves Aug 8, 2016
    user avatar

    Hell River? Notorious reputation? Overly sensational. The Haw is the "go to" whitewater river in the eastern part of the state, boated regularly without incident by novices and experienced boaters alike.

    I have kayaked the Haw for 20 years, at many water levels. While the Haw can flood its banks during high water which is worthy of caution, during the May rescue the Haw was only at 7' USGS, well within normal recreational levels for even moderately experienced boaters.

    Instead of the ongoing extravagant rescue expenses, Chatham County should invest in additional rescue training, engaging the local community for valuable experience in practical rescues that can be performed more safely than waiting until 11 pm for a helicopter with people in the water.

    Money could also be spent for warning signs, and simple signposts indicating levels that warrant additional caution.

  • Larry Ausley Aug 8, 2016
    user avatar

    WRAL has presented a very one-sided view of the value of the Haw River as a paddlesports destination. I have paddled the Haw as my "home" river for over 15 years as a whitewater kayaker & American Canoe Association certified Whitewater Kayaking Instructor & River Safety & Rescue Instructor. My love and enjoyment of the Haw is shared by hundreds in local paddling clubs like the Carolina Canoe Club.

    While vandals have sprayed "Hell River" on the Highway 64 bridge over the river, that doesn't make it so. The Haw is a unique environmental & recreational resource in our area, providing a training ground for whitewater paddlers throughout the piedmont of NC.

    Like any body of water, it has its risks. Learning about those risks and the skills and equipment to paddle it with relative safety is incumbent on the user.

    The triangle area is blessed with many ACA certified swiftwater rescue and paddling instructors that would welcome helping others enjoy this gem safely.

  • Skip Harris Aug 5, 2016
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    In order for those things to be answered they must first be asked. Unfortunately WRAL is all out of journalists.

  • Charles Boyer Aug 5, 2016
    user avatar

    "It's many thousands of dollars" -- specifically, how much in total, WRAL?

    How much of the cost of rescues are offset by the overall positive effect on the local economy because the Haw is turning into something of a tourist attraction for paddlers?

    If Chatham County were to start charging for rescues, would paddlers be able to purchase SAR insurance in North Carolina?

    These are important questions left unasked.

  • Melanie Lane Aug 5, 2016
    user avatar

    tax payers also reap benefit of people coming here to ride the rapids. Tax payers foot the bill for a lot of things, do you prefer that they drown? San Diego did la year or two ago. there was a dispute on who was payign for rescues and their rescue team literally stood on the beach and watched someone drown. America, this is why we can't have nice things.

  • Laurence Jones Aug 5, 2016
    user avatar

    Holy Cow!.........If you are at risk of drowning in the Haw River....then you are failing the "Darwin Test"................Some advice.......swim 20ft to the nearest bank.