My name is Jim Owczarzak and I am a active member of the Zoar Valley Paddlers Club (ZVPC) as well as a Registered Nurse. The members that make up the ZVPC are more familiar with the Cattaraugus watershed than most people, definitely more than the individuals that were running the search and rescue operation on Monday night. We are a group of people who are swift water trained and regularly rescue our own buddy's in hairy whitewater situations. We are river guides who have worked throughout the state, country, and world.
I don't mean to down play the heroism displayed in the rescue of the Zoar Valley Hunter that took place on Monday night into Tuesday morning. Clearly, anytime one puts oneself at risk in order to help save another it is truly a noble act. But the search and rescue operation that was run was incredibly sloppy, naive, and dangerous. Many injuries and rescues happen in the Zoar Valley MUA every year and the volunteers and workers who respond to them are ill-equipped to handle the situation.
At 330pm, when your website posted that the victim had been located the creek was at 2.34ft (or 637 cubic feet per second). A level considered by American Whitewater as below 'runnable'. Meaning that if someone had informed anyone from our group about this situation, we could have very easily and safetly rafted and kayaked from Skinner Hollow Road down to him and hauled him to a location where he could have been transported to a hospital.
Instead, the SAR team broke rule number 1 in search and rescue- don't make it worse. They sent down 6 climbers who were now themselves stuck on the shelf with the creek rapidly rising. If the rain had came down harder, I am convinced these people would be seriously injured now.
Also, I read that they sent a raft from down river to try and ferry up from a ways downstream. This is a daunting task in ideal conditions with strong eddy access along the side of the creek, which is not the case on the Catt. So one of my concerns is that out of the 200 or so people that the Gowanda fire Chief said was there, not one of them had the training or experience to say, lets put in a raft above the hunter and float down to him? This time everyone made it out alive, next time the rescue team becomes the rescuees the situation may not turn out so favorable. Next time it may be you or your friend dying on a rock shelf next to a rising river- would you want these obviously under prepared under skilled individuals heading up the operation to save you or them?
In total it took about 15 hours from the time they located the hunter to the extraction of the last rescue climber. This, to me, is totally unacceptable. We could have had him out in 3 hours easily, 1 and half if we were already down there.
Today a group of us kayaked down past where this all took place at a very similiar river level as that that took place during the rescue. It was a very relaxing day of class 2-3 paddling (ie easy). As we passed by where the man was trapped I took pictures of all the junk the rescue workers left behind. Feel free to look at them-
We also gathered some of the Fire Companies Rescue gear and PFD- if they want it back, feel free to contact me.
Even though everyone made it out alive and relatively well, I think we need to examine the decisions that were and were not made that night. There is a need for accountability and an assessment of this and all SAR operations so that a higher standard can be reached.
What I would like to see happen is that when water rescues in the area take place that the powers that be contact us, so we can help. Obviously a helicoper and basket don't work for all river extractions. We are the experts on the water, we play there weekly, why wouldn't you want our help? Or if that for whatever reason that is impossible, please let us help train these people about swift water and whitewater. Someone you know may have a life that depends on it someday.