A treacherous spot along the Chetco River near Loeb State Park claimed the life of a Brookings' fisherman Saturday and nearly the lives of six other fishermen in three separate boating accidents.
Brookings resident Lawrence Paul Graham, 67, drowned after his small, flat-bottom boat, called a Pram, capsized in the area of Tamba Hole, a mile or so downriver from Loeb State Park, according to Curry County Sheriff John Bishop.
"It's a very dangerous spot; the boats can get hung up on the overhanging tree branches, there are trees under the surface and the undercurrent just suck you under," Bishop said Sunday afternoon.
"We've had trouble in the spot the last few years," he said. "There were plenty of drift boats on Saturday that made the slot, but if you don't make it, you can get in big trouble."
Authorities received a 911 call at 10:36 a.m. Saturday from someone who witnessed Graham's boat get caught in the tree branches and flip over. The witness saw Graham's hand above the water a few times, and then disappear.
Graham was alone in the boat and it was not known if he was wearing a life jacket, Bishop said.
An Oregon State Police trooper and Sheriff deputy responded to the call, searching for Graham from the south bank, across from where the boat capsized. They had ropes and were prepared to toss them to Graham if necessary.
At that time a drift boat carrying three men was caught in the same tree-choked area of the river and flipped over, tossing the three men into the water.
One man was able to grab onto a tree branch and pull himself to the steep, brush-covered bank. The nearby officers threw ropes to the other two in the water and pulled them ashore.
"It was pure blind luck that the officers were there with ropes when that second boat flipped over," Bishop said. "If they hadn't been there we would have had two more bodies."
The fishermen, all from White City, were James Dusenberry, 30, Trevor Moore, 25, and Trevor Walford, 28. There were wearing life jackets and were rescued without injuries. The officers transported the three men to nearby Social Security Bar at about 12:47 p.m. when fishermen in another drift boat spotted Graham's body in shallow water about 3/4 of a mile downriver from Tamba Hole. The fishermen pulled the body into their boat and took it to shore where it could be recovered, Bishop said.
At 3:20 p.m. a third drift boat with three fishermen became trapped in the same spot as the last two boats, but it did not capsize.
The men were Craig Cass, 53 of Citrus Heights, Calif., Michael Forster, 51, of Galt, Calif., and Michael Carrol, 67, of Medford.
"It's a really bad spot," Forster said by phone Tuesday. "We missed the slot by just a little and ended up stuck in the trees."
The three fishermen remained in the boat for nearly two hours, waiting for search and rescue members to reach them.
At one point, Forster, who is more than 6-feet tall, secured a rope from the boat around himself and to a thick, overhanging branch and then hauled himself onto the branch. He then crawled 30 feet across the branch to the bank.
It just so happened that the Curry County Sheriff's Search and Rescue department was conducting winter training this weekend at Lobster Creek Campground on the Rogue River, east of Gold Beach. With sunset only a few hours away, a rope team, a jet ski and a flat-bottom marine rescue boat was dispatched from Lobster Creek to the Chetco River. It took search and rescue members nearly an hour to make the drive, Bishop said. Meanwhile, the officers at the scene told the two remaining fisherman to stay calm and that help was on the way.
The strong current and thick vegetation at Tamba hole made it impossible for the jet ski and marine boat operators to reach the the drift boat. Several search and rescue members climbed down from the north bank and used a chainsaw to cut some of the overhanging tree branches.
According to Forster, the rope team had the fishermen put on harness teathered with ropes that were secured to the shore and a nearby rescue boat. The two men then exited the boat and walked across a log to reach the shore without incident.
"We are extremely fortunate that we have such a good rope team," Bishop said. "This is what we train for. It was great teamwork from all the agencies involved."
He added, "Out of seven people we only lost one. It could have been a lot worse."
With the possibility of more drift boats getting caught in that treacherous section of the river, Bishop requested that the Oregon State Marine Board clear more of the overhanging branches and reduce the hazard to recover the trapped boat. The marine board is the only agency with the authority to modify natural features along the state's waterways.
"They came out this morning (Sunday) and approved a local contractor to do the work," Bishop said.
The trees were gone a few hours later, he said.