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50 rescued from Lehigh River after hours-long search

A group of 215 female rafters were accounted for after an hours-long search in the turbulent waters of the Lehigh River Monday night.

Of those, 50 rafters who were in distress had to be rescued as part of a group who were rafting with the outfitter Whitewater Rafting Adventures in Nesquehoning, according to Lehighton Fire Department Chief Patrick Mriss.

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Mriss said only one person sustained a minor injury and had to be transported to a hospital.

He said they were called out to the river at 5:40 p.m. for reports of multiple rafts piled up in the area of the Thomas J. McCall Memorial Bridge.

Mriss said the rafters were pulled out between the McCall bridge at Routes 209 and 443 and the turnpike bridge, which goes over the Lehigh at Route 895.

Throughout the rescue efforts, he said there were conflicting social media reports that there were 260 rafters, but it ended up being 215 customers on the river, along with their guides, according to the owner of the rafting company.

“There were conflicting reports, they were not released through me,” Mriss said. “I don’t know how people got those. Initial reports that there were 260, but it ended up being 215 customers on the river, but with their guides, that number would have been higher.”

Stephen Bretzik, general manager of Whitewater Rafting Adventures in Nesquehoning, said he was out on the water.

“The trip ran smoothly until the takeout location, no issues,” Bretzik said. “They were going to our secondary takeout location, most of them made it there, (but) in the middle of that, a few rafts got stuck.”

Bretzik said they had two guides with the one group, and there was a single raft.

On the scene, rafters said they were from a church camp in New York, but Bretzik did not confirm that.

Bretzik said the girls were mostly teenagers, with counselors who were older.

He said an average of six girls were on a raft, with guides with them.

Before the trip, an orientation briefing was conducted.

Bretzik said the level to start was a “comfortable level.”

“It only became an issue later,” he said. “No one was on the water longer than 2½ to 3 hours, which is the average length of that trip.”

Bretzik said the trip was from Jim Thorpe to Lehighton, and that the boats that missed the takeout in Lehighton were guided to Bowmanstown.

Mriss explained what likely caused the situation to unfold.

“The river conditions, and probably the age of the individuals,” he said. “Definitely the river was moving way too fast for inexperienced adventurers for that type of situation. I don’t think they were able to handle the flows and the rafts and guide the rafts in the direction that they needed to guide them.

“The currents were too strong for them to handle,” Mriss said.

He said that everyone had life vests, which was, “the main reason that we walked away with one minor injury from the whole incident.”

The chief added, “Just be advised that if you’re inexperienced, now’s not the time to give it a try.”

Mriss said that rescue efforts began about 5:40 p.m., along with other water rescue teams from several counties. Crews had reported covering the area from 895 north to Packerton, while others are south to the 873 bridge.

Five boats were in the river, with more on the way. A state police helicopter and a chopper from Fort Indiantown Gap were flying over the river to find any stranded rafters. Dive teams from Walnutport and Ryan Township were also on scene.

The search was extended to Jim Thorpe, where it was first reported some rafters were in distress.

Mriss said the search was called off as of about 10 p.m. after “verifying that the number of people recovered are accounted for matched the number of customers that set out on the trip.”

“Thanks out to all that did assist with this magnitude of people,” he said. “It definitely required a lot of help both from the local level and the state level.”

Bretzik said unfortunately, there are inherent risks with any outdoor activity, rafting including.

“There’s always a chance things can happen. We train, we have good guides, good staff,” he said. “We do our due diligence to mitigate that (risk management).”

“I was out there, was comfortable with the water level we started with, the staff we had,” he said. “We would not have run the trip if we though it was unsafe.”

Bretzik added, “The accountability was the biggest thing that scared everyone, but at no point did we think anyone was missing because we were with them the whole time.

“It’s part of the industry,” he said. “I think things were handled really well, both on our part, and all the first responders that came.”

Bretzik added, “Everyone was off the water quickly, it was just the name-by-name accountability at several locations that took the longest.”

There was at least one other outfitter that was out Monday that Bretzik said he knew of.

“It’s a fun activity. There’s always a risk no matter what you do,” he said. “I hope this doesn’t turn people away from the activity, because it’s a lot of fun.”

This rescue boat was among the emergency personnel called out during rescue efforts as part of an hourslong search in the turbulent waters of the Lehigh River Monday night. Scan this photo with the Prindeo app for a video of the rafters after the rescue efforts were complete. COPYRIGHT LARRY NEFF/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
A group of rafters is back on land Monday evening after being rescued from the Lehigh River.