Mercer students rescued from Ocmulgee River

College students rescued from Ocmulgee River

lfabian@macon.comSeptember 3, 2013 

Four Mercer students imagining a leisurely raft ride on the Ocmulgee wound up nearly neck-deep in swamp water near the landfill Monday night.

The two men and two women called 911 about 9 p.m. when they couldn’t find their way off the river in the dark.

“They had no idea what they got themselves into,” said Sgt. Mitch Scott, of the Macon-Bibb Fire Department.

After putting their inflatable rafts in at Spring Street about 3:30 p.m., they were about four or five miles downstream when it started to get dark.

Dressed only in their bathing suits, they set out on foot, apparently not knowing the land was infested with snakes, wild hogs, alligators, insects and other wildlife.

At times, the students were chest deep, walking in the swamp, trying to find a way out, they told the rescuers.

One of the two women, who were wearing bikinis, said she would never get in that water again, Scott said.

“They don’t know how blessed they were,” he said. “There are gators down there that would eat you whole.”

Firefighters narrowly missed hitting a 200-pound hog on their way out.

Macon E-911 dispatchers coordinated the rescue effort, with Macon police officers talking by phone between the students and the search party, which included police and fire units and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, according to a police department news release.

A Georgia State Patrol helicopter was also on standby, the release stated.

Finally, a GPS signal helped rescuers reach them about 11:30 p.m.

Fire Cpl. Garin Flanders said the only working cellphone the rafters had was down to 8 percent battery strength when they made the first call for help.

“They were in contact with us for all but about an hour,” he said.

One of them reported seeing a sign for Walker Swamp Road.

Flanders was familiar with the area from hunting trips, but the road leading to it was flooded, he said.

They had to go back behind the Norfolk Southern rail yard to find their way.

Two Macon Public Works employees joined in the effort.

Solid Waste Coordinator Lee Stringer and heavy equipment operator Jamie Josey know the backroads around the landfill, stated Assistant Solid Waste Director Larry Dunning Jr. in an email to The Telegraph.

Josey used to work for Cherokee Brick & Tile and the students were found near the company’s clay pit.

Dunning plans to give both of his men a formal letter of commendation this week.

“Thank God this story had a wonderful ending and they ‘lived’ happily ever after,” Dunning said.

Police spokeswoman Jami Gaudet told of the departments’ efforts in her “Good News of the Day.”

Acting Chief Mike Carswell said the emergency operators are often the unsung heroes in situations like this when they coordinate communications for the rescue.

Precinct 1 Capt. Eric Walker warned people to get off the water before dusk.

“Even if you are familiar with a river, it is easy to become disoriented when it becomes dark,” Walker said in the release.

The veteran rescuers from the fire department said people need to realize the river takes many twists and turns and can take much longer to navigate than people realize when they look at driving distances between boat ramps.

Rafters should always have an exit strategy and backup plan in case the current does not carry them as fast as they anticipated.

One of the four students was from Florida and the other three were from outside of Middle Georgia and did not seem to be familiar with the Ocmulgee, the firefighters said.

If someone gets lost on the river, they should stay at the bank and call for help, Flanders said.

“When you get out into the woods, we can’t get to you as easily,” he said.

To contact Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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