Possible disaster turns into lesson of safety on river

Posted: Friday, July 24, 2009

Talk about being in the right place at the right time. Four Anchorage men found out the hard way that if you capsize your boat on the Kenai River, it's best to do it where help can get to you in a hurry.

Monday's call to the Kenai Fire Department sent crews from their department, the Coast Guard and Alaska State Parks rangers scrambling, as well as fishermen in close proximity to the boat. The goal: to get the men out of the frigid Kenai water as quickly as possible.

While two men initially were trapped under the boat, there is one thing that all four had in common and ultimately saved their lives: They were wearing flotation devices -- or life jackets.

What started out as a dipnetting adventure, nearly turned into a tragedy for Robert Long, his son Rodney, nephew Billy Douglas and friend Russel Stigall, after the 19-foot service vessel they were in flipped.

"We lost our engine after a Coast Guard safety inspection. We were floating downstream toward the dock hoping to get it restarted. We floated into a mooring buoy and line. With the current and the angle of the boat, we capsized within 20 seconds of hitting it," Long told the Clarion on Monday afternoon.

After getting tangled in the line, the men couldn't move the bow of the boat. The river's current changed the boat's position, which then began to take on water and then capsized.

Stigall and Rodney Long were thrown clear of the vessel and popped up a few yards downstream, where they were carried away in the current. Stigall said he hit the bottom of the river, then popped right up.

He credits the life jackets with saving his life because the breathable waders he had on filled with water. Rescuers pulled them to safety by their life-jackets.

Although the jackets initially hindered the rescue of Long and Douglas, trapping them under the boat, they also allowed them to rise into the air pocket underneath it.

The men were in the 55-degree water for 20 minutes before emergency personnel maneuvered the boat's hull enough to get the two men out. They were nearly hypothermic.

Every year rescue services respond to fishing accidents -- dipnetters get caught in the current, stranded on a sand bar or fall from or flip their boat. Each year emergency personnel do their best to save these people's lives. But adding a safety buffer makes a huge difference when you're on the wrong end of a bad situation.

Life jackets may be bulky, awkward and a "hassle" to put on, but in so many ways it's been proven that they do save lives. The bottom line is if you're going to be around the water, put one on and keep it on. You never know when you're going to need it.

"I can't say enough thanks to everyone who took part in the rescue," Long said.

We're just glad Mr. Long is still around to tell them.

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