Quick thinking, experience, teamwork aid in rescue of two below Center Hill Dam
By Fred Tucker
LANCASTER, Tenn. — Quick-thinking, experience and teamwork of individuals at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Center Hill Dam aided in the rescue of two people Aug. 16, 2012 after their boat capsized while fishing in turbulent tail waters during sluice gate releases.
Fortunately, both were wearing personal flotation devices and nearby fisherman responded. An experienced Corps employee at the Lancaster, Tenn., facility spotted the daring rescue attempt in progress.
“I was returning to the power plant and saw a woman trapped on a small ledge across the river and a man in a small Jon boat trying to rescue her,” said Bob Tower, a retired Corps employee from the Cordell Hull Power Plant who now works as a rehired annuitant on the Center Hill Seepage project.
“I called the power plant shift operator and asked him to turn his camera on the area and to close the sluice gate so the woman could be rescued,” Tower added.
Corps Construction Office employees who also observed the situation placed a 911 call and then notified Center Hill natural resource manager’s office of the situation.
After observing the rescue of the woman and while reporting it to the shift operator, Tower said he saw something blue floating in the water (later found to be part of the destroyed boat) and then spotted what appeared to be a man in the water below spillway gate five. At this point, Tower asked the shift operator to shut off all the water.
The man in the Jon boat delivered the woman to the boat ramp and then went back up the river and rescued the man in the water before all the water was shut off, according to Tower.
“The Jon boat was small, and with the man standing up in it, I expected him to be in the water at any time while being tossed around by the turbulence and trying to stay away from the rocks,” Tower explained. “He never hesitated to go back up the river to rescue the man in the water, even though he could not know at the time that the water was being shut off,” he added.
Kevin Salvilla, natural resource manager at Center Hill Lake, praised the assistance provided by Corps employees. "If it was not for the quick thinking, professionalism, and decisive action taken by Bob Tower and Power Plant Shift Operators Tom Gray and Clinton Lamar to suspend gate operations, this situation could have resulted in a very tragic public fatality,” he said.
Park Rangers Josh Leslie and Matt Simcox, along with Salvilla, responded to the scene with their Corps patrol boat and saw the rescue underway by a local fisherman later identified as Curtis Ferguson, who had just moments prior to the ranger's arrival launched his small flat bottom Jon boat to assist.
While operating his vessel in turbulent water along the right descending bank and unable to reach the stranded woman, Ferguson threw a float cushion attached to a rope and was able to pull her toward the shore, according to Salvilla.
“Ferguson again carefully navigated his vessel in extremely turbulent water toward the other individual who was now straddling sluice gates three and four while sluice gates five and six were in operation. As the sluice gates were being closed, Ferguson single handedly retrieved the individual from the frigid and turbulent water and safely escorted him back to shore,” Salvilla added.
"It was amazing to watch such an act of selfless service," said Leslie.
"Curtis Ferguson executed the rescue maneuver with precision and extreme confidence", added Simcox.
Center Hill Rangers recovered the boat which had been broken in half from being tossed around in the sluice gate release.
“Warning signs are posted above and below all Corps and TVA dams but the extreme danger of operating a small boat near a dam during water releases cannot be over-emphasized,” said Salvilla. “These two individuals were very fortunate,” he added.