HART Team rescues local men from Watauga River

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   Two local men who became stranded in the middle of the Watauga River were rescued from an island Saturday evening by members of Carter County Rescue Squad's High-Angle Rescue Team (HART) following a 2-1/2 hour search.
   According to John Burleson of the HART Team, members received a call around 6:45 p.m. regarding two inner tubers who were overdue. Charles Toncray, 26, of Elizabethton, and Aaron Scott, 24, of Johnson City had put in at 2:30 p.m. at Black Bottom in Elizabethton and were going to River Ridge Campground, according to Burleson.
   "The guy who was supposed to pick them up called and said they were overdue. Somebody saw an inner tube and a paddle go floating by and nobody in it," he said. "We launched a team and put two boats in the water."
   One boat was put in at Black Bottom to run from there to Blevins Road at River Bend. The other was launched from River Bend to run from that point down the Watauga to River Ridge Campground.
   "In the meantime, some lady off Sycamore Shoals Drive, I believe, said that she had a visual of them. They were standing on a little island in the middle of the current. At that point in time, we put the boat in, floated out and picked them up and brought them out safely," Burleson said.
   "The water was muddy and it was getting foggy. They couldn't really see, and they were a tad bit on the hypothermic side," he said. Burleson was unsure at press time how the men happened to get stranded on the island.
   Lt. Bobby Huffman, who investigated the incident for Carter County Sheriff's Department, said, "If that fog had been a little bit thicker and somebody hadn't seen them, they would have been there all night.
   "The fog was coming up off the river and it was moving pretty good. I don't know if it was just from the rain or if they were generating, but it was bad. I went up and down the river -- everywhere that the highway touched it, or a field where I could walk over to it -- and you couldn't have seen them if they had been out in the middle of it. It just so happened that the spot where they were, somebody saw them. They were lucky," Huffman said.
   Members of Watauga Volunteer Fire Department and Central Volunteer Fire Department also assisted in the search.
   June traditionally kicks off the busy season for the HART Team, with the Watauga River and Appalachian Trail generating numerous rescues throughout the summer months.
   "It costs us a lot of manpower and time," said Terry Arnold, director of Carter County Emergency Medical Services. "That's what we're there for, but better to be safe than sorry.
   "If they've got any questions, come up to the squad building and talk to one of our team members before they hit the river, or call us," he said.
   Burleson recommended that outdoor enthusiasts leave an itinerary of where they are going to be. Anyone entering the county's rivers and lake should always make sure they have an approved flotation device, and "wear it, don't sit on it," he said. "Always play it on the safe side, that way, nobody's in danger."