By JOSEPH B. NADEAU
CENTRAL FALLS – The high waters of the Blackstone River proved to be too much for a pair of canoeists Sunday, overturning their boat and leaving them clinging to a safety line in the turbulent waters near the Roosevelt Avenue Bridge.
The canoeists had been helping to set up the finish line area for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Duck Race fundraiser just before 12:50 p.m. when they went into river’s waters, according to the Central Falls Fire Department.
Fire Department Lt. Matt Moulton said the department found two males in the fast moving water below Roosevelt Avenue Bridge when they arrived at the scene.
Luckily the victims were able to hold onto a floating line while firefighters put in the Central Falls Rescue boat and secured the area with additional safety lines, Moulton said. Two firefighters from Pawtucket responding in mutual aid and a Central Falls firefighter went out in the department’s inflatable boat to pull the victims from the water, Moulton said.
Both of the males suffered hypothermia from their time in the approximately 50 degree river water, according to Moulton.
The Central Falls Rescue and Cumberland Rescue transported the males to Rhode Island Hospital for treatment, Moulton said. Rescue personnel estimated the canoeists had been in fast-moving river water for at least 20 minutes before they were rescued.
The incident occurred behind the Storage America facility in Central Falls at 558 Roosevelt Ave. The duck race fundraiser had been scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. but was called off because of the river emergency. The winning ducks were later selected in a drawing conducted at the Storage America Parking Lot due to the safety concerns.
“It was certainly something more than they planned on,” Moulton said of the river’s quick rise and speed up from the area’s heavy rains on Friday.
The high level of the river could have put the victims, both reported to be wearing personal flotation jackets, at great risk if they had not been able to secure themselves from going down river as their canoe apparently did, according to Moulton.
“They were lucky to have a line to hold onto with all the water running through the area and the height of the river,” he said.
The firefighters from Pawtucket spotted the empty canoe going downriver as they responded to the location and the whereabouts of the boat was not known Sunday night.
High water is always a time for great caution on the Blackstone, according to Moulton. “I just think some people get out on the river and don’t understand what the situation will be,” he said. “They were very lucky they were hooked up on a rope so that we could get down there and help them,” he said.
The rain-swollen river also proved to be too much for Chuck Horbert and his fellow paddlers planning to traverse the northern Rhode Island section of their “Blueways Alliance” paddle across Rhode Island this week, according John Marsland, President of the Blackstone River Watershed Council/ Friends of the Blackstone.
The group had set out tributaries of the Blackstone River in Burrillville on Saturday and ended their trip at the juncture of the Branch River and Blackstone, Marsland said. The trip apparently has been put off to next year due to the high waters of the rivers and streams in central and western Rhode Island, Marsland said.
“They reported on their website they were lucky to escape with bumps and bruises,” Marsland said. The group faced an 1,800-cubic-foot-per-second flow on the rain-swollen Branch River, Marsland noted. The Blackstone River in Woonsocket peaked at just under a 6,000-cubic-feet-per- second flow this week with a height of just over 8 feet. The river’s flood stage is at 9 feet.
Marsland said he also believes the canoeists in Central Falls were lucky to have been pulled from the river where they were rescued. “There is a falls there and they could have gone over,” he said. Like Lt. Moulton, Marsland said people sometimes underestimate the power of river’s flow.
“It’s Mother Nature and you don’t expect what it is going to do to you until it is too late,” he said.