“Drowning machines.”

That’s the term boating experts have given to the type of small dam that claimed the lives of at least four people who were riding tubes along the Dan River recently near the Duke Energy Steam Station.

A total of nine people apparently toppled over the “low-head dam,” or “weir,” into an unforgiving whirlpool during a family outing.

The dam is only eight feet tall and the water at its base is only three feet deep, but the churning current at its base is deceptively strong and potentially fatal.

Experts surmise that the victims who died drowned after their tubes had overturned and they were stunned and swallowed by the turbulent water.

“The hydraulics is what gets people,’’ Glenn Bozorth, who owned and operated Dan River Adventures in Stoneville for 25 years, told RockinghamNow’s Susie Spear. “When the water goes over the dam, it creates a circular motion that pulls you under ... .”

Once trapped inside such a powerful vortex, even professional divers have lost their lives. The churning water spins and pulls its prey under over and over. Further, the concrete walls on the sides of a low-head dam can block an escape route. And rescue attempts are both dangerous and frequently unsuccessful.

Last week’s incident is being described as the worst recreational accident ever in Rockingham County.

The four survivors who were rescued near the dam were found clinging to their tubes after spending an estimated 19 hours in the river. A Duke Energy employee spotted them near the steam station.

Among the victims were 7-year-old Isiah Crawford, 27-year-old Bridish Crawford and 30-year-old Antonio Ramon, all of Eden, and 14-year-old Sophie Wilson of Laporte, Ind. At press time, a 35-year-old Eden woman, Teresa Villano, remained missing.

Low-head dams have their uses. They can improve the flow of rivers for boating, boost the generation of hydro-electric power and increase the collection of water for irrigation and drinking.

But they also are universally reviled as serious safety hazards, described variously as “washing machines” and the “perfect drowning machine.” The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources simply calls them “killers.”

Experts say the best way to prevent low-head dam tragedies, which are not uncommon, is simply not to have low-head dams. Whether that is a practical solution in the case of this stretch of the Dan we don’t know. But where these structures no longer serve their original purposes, say, in service to a factory or electric power station that has since been closed or abandoned, why keep them in place? Some civil engineers and environmentalists say removal of such structures not only can make rivers safer but also help restore local ecosystems.

Short of that solution, experts say, rafters, tubers and boaters can take some commonsense steps to prevent similar accidents:

Don’t be deceived by the innocuous appearance of these structures. They are much deadlier than they look.

Plan river outings carefully and know the length of your route and the duration of each trip. “One of the biggest problems is people get in the river without a plan,’’ the Stoneville boating expert, Dan Bozorth, told RockinghamNow. “Whenever we’ve had to rescue people it was typically because they weren’t listening to directions.’’

Know where dams are located along the route.

Take seriously the posted warning signs that advise leaving the river and walking around the dams, a precaution called “portaging.”

Avoid drinking alcohol while rafting or tubing in order to remain alert and react quickly to unforeseen obstacles or emergencies.

Wear a life jacket. Sadly, no one did in the case of the ill-fated family on the Dan.

The Dan River remains a precious resource for kayaking, rafting and tubing on hot, lazy summer afternoons. But don’t let the allure of its banks and waters conceal the inherent hazards.

Indeed, outdoor activities on land can pose their own threats. The day before the Dan River accident, a 64-year-old Greensboro man was found unconscious on a trail at Bur-Mil Park after being injured by a falling tree. He later was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

As with any outing on the Piedmont’s trails, lakes and rivers, behind natural beauty can lurk hidden danger … and sometimes unspeakable tragedy.


Wyndi Veigel is the editor of The Marshall News Messenger and a 2007 graduate of Texas A&M University-Commerce. She has been a reporter, photographer, page designer and social media expert for several publications.