EDEN — The bodies of three people were recovered late Thursday from the Dan River, about two and half miles from where their raft went over a dam the night before.
Rescue crews on Friday morning were back on the Dan, combing the water and surrounding land for two other missing rafters who traveled in the group. And authorities and river experts were calling the accident the worst recreational disaster in the county's history.
Rockingham County Emergency Services Director Rodney Cates had no news to report on the survivors on Friday and said searchers were still seeking two more.
Water rescue teams in two boats and air crews worked Thursday evening in a search for five missing rafters who traveled over the dam near Duke Energy's Dan River Steam Station here late Wednesday night, authorities said.
By 6 p.m., the State Highway Patrol had dispatched a helicopter equipped with forward-looking infrared cameras to help with the search through the night. The technology is designed to enhance night vision and detect heat sources in such searches. The SHP continued searching with the chopper throughout the day on Friday.
Authorities confirmed about 9:30 p.m. on Thursday that three bodies had been found and were believed to be those of some of the missing rafters.
Earlier Thursday afternoon, emergency workers rescued four people from near the dam who said they had traveled the Dan River as a group of nine with the five missing people on Wednesday. The group used three rafts for their trek, Cates said.
The four who were rescued, who were not wearing life jackets at the time they were found, were being treated at a local hospital Thursday night for injuries not considered life-threatening, Cates said.
Workers at the Duke facility had alerted authorities around 3:30 p.m. on Thursday after they noticed the four people appeared to be stranded on the river near the dam. Cates declined to speculate on the ages of the rafters or whether they were intoxicated. He did not provide names of the rescued or missing individuals.
"This incident actually occurred near dark last night,'' Cates said, explaining the four rescued rafters provided authorities with some details. "These people were floating the river, they go over the dam which is near the Duke Energy plant,'' Cates said.
Dan Riverkeeper Steven Pulliam of Stoneville said on Friday that he wonders if recent rains created mud that obscured the portage area along the river where boaters and tubers can exit and walk around the dam's powerful currents.
"The portage/trail to exit pre-dam is a good ways before the dam on the right,'' Pulliam said. "It's possible that recent rains covered some of the steps with mud, making it hard to see, especially if you're not looking for it.''
While the dam's drop-off is only about 8 feet, it "causes a strong current at its base,'' Pulliam said. "It would be almost impossible for a tube/raft to go over it without flipping.'' Jeff Brooks, a spokesman for Duke Energy, estimates the depth of water at the base of the dam, where current is strongest, to be around three feet.
"There is a sign that is visible as you approach the dam that also mentions the availability of a portage,'' Brooks said in a Friday email.
Exposure means body temp drops fast
After one hour in 70 degree water, a person could lose dexterity. After 2-7 hours in water, exhaustion and loss of consciousness could follow, Pulliam said.
Sheriff Sam Page and Cates said Rockingham County water rescue teams worked to search the river Thursday with teams from Madison-Rockingham Rescue Squad, Eden Rescue Squad and Reidsville Rescue Squad.
Meanwhile, other emergency workers, including pilots with Virginia Air Life, a medical air service that contract with the county, surveyed the scene from the air, covering 6 miles downstream from the dam and into Virginia in hopes of seeing the missing rafters. The Rockingham County Sheriff's Office also assisted in the operation.
Considering the power of water and hazards of rocks along the Dan, Cates encouraged water enthusiasts to take water safety seriously and wear life jackets without fail.
"The current of the river makes it very hard to navigate, even for the most experienced swimmers,'' Cates said during a Thursday press briefing. "So we strongly encourage people to wear some type of personal floatation device in addition to the tube they're in."
Pulliam agreed. "The biggest thing to remember is always wear a life jacket. They not only help you float, but give you protection against obstacles. If you're new to the river, I'd recommend a life jacket and a helmet. As for bad accidents, this is the worst in my memory,'' Pulliam said.
"The river is wild and beautiful, it gives and takes. It’s devastating to hear the news today,'' Pulliam said on Friday. "I hope we can heal and learn."
No information was available about when or where the group began their Wednesday water trip, Cates said.
This is a developing story.
Contact Susie C. Spear at email@example.com, (336) 349-4331, ext. 6140 and follow @SpearSusie_RCN on Twitter.