Photo by Brian Giandelone
BUFORD -- A Buford outfitter failed to warn a busload of tubers on June 3 of pending dam releases or to explain the area's warning sirens before sending them on a Chattahoochee River excursion that claimed a 9-year-old drowning victim, a federal report released Thursday concluded.
Through a month of interviews and fact-gathering, Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area officials determined that 10 Dollar Tubing was negligent in putting in a group of about 14 tubers unprepared for the river's tumult that afternoon.
The company's permit to operate at the put-in point near Ga. Highway 20 has been yanked, and legal ramifications are possible in the ongoing investigation, said Patty Wissinger, superintendent of the national recreation area.
Jeff McCullough, owner of 10 Dollar Tubes, did not return a message left Thursday evening. Wissinger said he "vehemently denies" wrongdoing. She noted the company had a flawless safety record prior to the drowning of Peachtree City resident Anna Van Horn, who was on the river with two adults, including her baby sitter.
The report describes a flotilla of tubers who were caught off guard and thrust into chaos by a 2:55 p.m. release about 21/2 miles upstream.
Witnesses told investigators a 10 Dollar Tubing employee had failed to mention pending water releases or explain the system of warning sirens near Buford Dam, as required by a special condition of the national recreation area's authorization for commercial businesses. An adequate safety message regarding hypothermia, what to do if capsized and the basic use of life jackets was not addressed either, the investigation found.
Witnesses recalled in interviews hearing a siren, but "dismissed it as a distant police or fire siren and continued their float," Officer William Overton wrote.
Rushing waters capsized some members of the group who were able to self-rescue. En route to the river bank, they heard shouts of "get back in your tube," a report states.
Upstream, Van Horn had become entangled in a partially submerged tree near the river's west bank. When rushing waters capsized her tube, she was swept into a second tree "and was overtaken by the increasing flow of water," the report states.
A neighbor along the river called 911 at 3:32 p.m. Van Horn's body was recovered two hours later.
Wissinger said interviews with members of the excursion and other witnesses on the river were consistent.
"The whole group heard the sirens; some thought it might be the dam sirens but weren't sure," Wissinger said. "There was certainly confusion in the group."
Wissinger said her law enforcement staff is working with the U.S. Attorney's Office and the U.S. Park Services Special Investigators Branch to determine if criminal charges are applicable.
"We don't anticipate that there will be criminal charges," she said.
As a next step, the national recreation area will conduct a review with staff and safety experts and other tubing companies. "Certainly we want to review how we can prevent something like this from ever happening again," she said.
Ten Dollar Tubes is one of six outfitters federally permitted to operate in the national recreation area, a 48-mile expanse from Buford Dam to Peachtree Creek near Buckhead. It logs 3.2 million visitors per year, with patronage increasing due to a sputtering economy, the oppressive heat of recent summers and the perception that the river has been cleaned up after decades of conservation efforts and dumping restrictions.
Federal authorities launched a review last month to analyze how outfitters do business. Tighter federal regulations could restrict where and when outfitters access the river, or how they must oblige dam releases. A complete overhaul of the outfitter permitting process is possible, officials have said.
The review had been in planning stages for months and was not specifically related to Van Horn's death.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources compiled a separate report obtained by the Daily Post this week through an open records request. It notes river conditions when Van Horn died as "choppy," and water temperatures at 55 degrees.
The DNR investigation also concluded Van Horn drowned in rising waters released from Buford Dam.
Sgt. Lee Brown of DNR said lessons can be learned from the tragedy.
"There might be some changes up and down the river, but what tubers, kayakers, canoers and people fishing need to take from this -- if they hear sirens, they need to get off the river immediately," Brown said. "If they're (out of sirens' range), and they see water start to rise, they need to get out of water immediately."