By Nathan Ham
At the most recent Beech Mountain town council meeting on December 11, more details shed some light on what happened to a diver that caused him to get stuck while performing general maintenance on an underwater valve.
On November 20, Beech Mountain Public Works Superintendent Daniel Davis spoke with the contract divers at lunch time and at that point, all things were going as expected with the maintenance expected to be completed Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning.
At 6:53 p.m., an emergency call went out that evening that a diver was trapped underwater at Buckeye Lake. Davis along with Ronnie McKinney and Robert Heaton, the Director of Infrastructure for Beech Mountain, were notified of the incident.
In addition to the Beech Mountain Fire Department, other responding agencies included the Linville Volunteer Fire Department that included an inflatable boat, diver and rope, the Carter County Tennessee diver rescue team, Watauga and Avery County Emergency Management, Eggers Construction that provided heavy equipment and pumps, Carolina Water Company, who also provided a water pump, Beech Mountain Police Department and Avery County Sheriff’s Department.
Once emergency personnel arrived, the water plant was instructed to start the operation to begin lowering the water level of the lake because the diver was trapped approximately 22 feet underwater by a malfunctioning gate release valve.
The rescue operation started at 7:33 p.m. with the first rescue diver in the water and the delivery of warm water to the trapped diver started at 7:51 p.m. The Carter County dive team arrived on scene at 8:30 p.m. and attached a pull rope to the trapped diver at 8:45 p.m. The diver was removed from the release gate at 9:36 p.m. The diver remained under water for 22 minutes for a decompression period before being pulled from the lake at 9:59 p.m. The diver was then transported to Watauga Medical Center.
According to town officials, the release valve had been functioning properly until the incident happened.
The cost of the incident to Beech Mountain was $59,250 for the tankers and $1,664 for bottled water that had to be distributed to residents after the water levels dropped significantly to perform the rescue mission. The drop in water levels brought a stage five water conservation alert to residents, the strongest water conservation restriction. Residents were asked to not shower, wash clothes or dishes and only flush toilets when necessary.
This incident also allowed Beech Mountain town officials to see how their emergency plan worked and what could be improved on in the future. Details shared said that the town did have a written emergency plan to deal with a sudden loss of water at the lake and the steps of that plan included activating water shortage response plans to inform the residents as well as activating the Beech Mountain Utilities Emergency Action Plan, notifying the N.C. Department of Environmental Health and activating the Watauga Hazard Mitigation Plan.
Some of the items mentioned for future improvement during emergency situations like this included making sure essential personnel have the gate code to the water plant, having additional water hauling company contacts, alerting fire and police officials a week prior to maintenance work beginning and potentially adding a fourth water treatment plant operator to allow for better rotation for key operations.