Smoky Mountain News: In amazing rescue, NOC employee saves drowning paddler


In this Oct. 10 story from the Smoky Mountain News, reporter Andrew Kasper details a daring rescue by a Nantahala Outdoor Center bus driver who saw a paddler drowning in the Nantahala River.

Dozens of hard-core paddlers hit the river a few weeks back for the much-anticipated whitewater release from Nantahala Dam. The flood gates opened, the whitewater rushed out and paddlers hit the runs in their kayaks. But one paddler had a rough go. An alert Rob Kelly saw a woman in distress and reacted:

During one pass up the river, however, Kelly watched as a female kayaker in a purple boat came downstream heading right at the log. He would later find out her name was Sue Martin, an avid kayaker from Atlanta and single mother of two.

“She saw the tree and tried to get out of way,” Kelly said. “But I think fixating on it caused her to head toward it and she ended up washing up against it.”

She was paddling with a friend, but when her friend tried to assist her, he flipped and washed down river. As Kelly watched the scene unfold, Martin’s head went underwater, with her body stuck in the boat and pinned against the tree by the rushing current.

Kelly pulled the bus over, grabbed a rope and yelled to the 50 or so passengers that someone was drowning and he needed to go. He doesn’t quite remember the words he used, or if he turned off the ignition to the bus, but he took off running toward the river.

The current was brown, turgid and rushing, nearly six feet deep where the woman was still submerged toward the far shore. Kelly used the rope from the bus, tossing it toward Martin’s paddling companion in an attempt to pull him back toward her. But the other kayaker couldn’t make it upstream to help.

Click over to read the full story, and see photos of the rescue.